“Raazi”… A conveniently scripted thriller that chugs along perfunctorily

Posted on May 27, 2018


Spoilers ahead…

For those of us who wondered if Vishal Bhardwaj’s spectacular script (along with Sreekar Prasad’s needle-sharp cutting) was largely responsible for how terrific Talvar was, there’s some affirmation in Meghna Gulzar’s follow-up, Raazi. This isn’t a bad film by any means — and any India-Pakistan drama, especially one set in 1971, that steers clear of jingoistic chest-thumping needs to be applauded. One of the film’s highlights is the Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy song, Ae watan — staged (in a school ceremony) in a manner that celebrates patriotism on both sides of the border. But the staging itself feels fake, a little too… aware. It’s not just the laughable fact that a boy who could barely croak out the words now sings like Rafi. It’s that a filmmaker from an older era of Hindi cinema would have made us look past this boy and his near-magical transformation, because the emotion of the moment would have grabbed us. When you feel, you don’t think as much. Today’s filmmakers think more than they feel, and these melodramatic contrivances ring hollow.

Meghna’s sensibility is subtle. Even when a bomb goes off, she doesn’t amp up the drama, choosing instead to focus on a face that registers the horror. Another lovely scene cuts from a dying husband to a wife who’s asking the cook to have dinner ready because saab said he’s coming home early. But this tonality cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to seep into the entire film — not just in bits. I sat up during an early moment when Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapur), an Indian spy from Kashmir, reveals that he has a lung tumour. It’s not cigarettes, he sighs. “Shaayad zindagi ke kash kuch lambe liye.” (Maybe I’ve inhaled a little too much of life.) But this poetry doesn’t pervade through the other lines, and it appears as though the director stumbled upon her father’s song in Hu Tu Tu and decided the words sounded cool. (Itna lamba kash lo yaaro dam nikal jaye / Zindagi sulgao yaaro, gham nikal jaye.)

Raazi chugs along perfunctorily, steadying itself after an awful setup. A completely needless framing device lays it on thick, with an address to the armed forces about the unknown people who helped India win wars. Then we meet Hidayat Khan’s daughter, Sehmat (Alia Bhatt). Without asking her, Hidayat Khan decides she will continue his dangerous work. (“What I couldn’t do, she will do,” he says later, echoing the father from Dangal.) Does this college-going girl balk at what’s being asked of her — marrying a Pakistani named Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) and relaying secrets back home? There’s a shot where Sehmat seems to be thinking about it, but when her father comes in and says maybe it’s too much to expect of her, she delivers a robotic speech about how his blood courses through her veins. Maybe she just saw Manoj Kumar’s Upkar! Or maybe it’s her name, which means acquiescent, agreeing.

We get to know just enough of Sehmat that’s needed for the script. Was Sehmat a fangirl of that new chap, Rajesh Khanna? Did she try on the Sadhana cut? Did she have a crush on a boy in college? Does she have any thoughts about Kashmir, with respect to the rest of India? Who cares? But we do get to know she likes Hindustani music — because that trait will come in useful to define Iqbal as a considerate man, when he buys her a Bade Ghulam Ali Khan LP. The scene also has a patriotic undertone — even in Pakistan, Sehmat listens to Hindustani classical music. It’s scripting by the numbers. (1) Sehmat’s friend calls her a scaredy-cat — so we know later how tough this mission was. (2) We see Sehmat rescuing a squirrel from becoming roadkill — so that, later, when she makes roadkill of a man who’s on to her, we know what must have gone through her. (3) The friend tells us (through dialogue) that Sehmat is amazing at memorizing numbers — so later, we see… how amazing she is at memorizing numbers.

Meghna and co-writer Bhavani Iyer (the screenplay is based on Calling Sehmat, by Harinder Sikka) don’t take any chances that we might actually think through some things, figure it out for ourselves. It’s hilarious how a rookie like Sehmat manages to do so much snooping right under the noses of some of Pakistan’s top army men (though some of these scenes do carry a bit of tension). Her minder’s voice-over helpfully instructs her — and spoon-feeds us. “Sabke aane jaane ka time yaad karna,” we hear. (Remember at what times people come and go.) We see Sehmat looking at her wristwatch. The voiceover reiterates a point about a poison. We see Sehmat administering that poison. Somewhere, Vishal Bhardwaj is surely chuckling.

The most important thread in this type of film is the emotional one. What does it mean for a young girl to offer not just her life (for there’s no guarantee she’ll make it back alive), but her body? The script smooths over the ickiness of this situation by making Iqbal the sweetest, kindest man in the history of mandom. But this creates another knot that isn’t satisfactorily explored either. Everyone in that family is so nice. (You really feel for Iqbal when he asks Sehmat if there was ever anything between them.) Sehmat is betraying the trust of some really good-hearted people, who, like her, are only doing what’s best for their country. The film is so concerned with the procedural logistics that this emotional conflict isn’t explored in a way that makes us feel a twinge. In Dil Se, the Manisha Koirala character questions if they are right in using people who are so good. Sehmat gets an outburst towards the end, but by then, it’s too late. She’s questioning something that’s already done and dusted. It would have added to her actions if she’d done the questioning while doing them, if she’d hesitated even once during her various killings.

Jaideep Ahlawat is brilliant as Sehmat’s trainer/minder, and it’s in a scene with him that we sense the emotional stakes. After her training, Sehmat asks him if he thinks she can pull it off. He says yes, but there’s no triumph in his eyes — only sorrow. He knows — as she doesn’t yet — what is being asked of her, what he is asking of her. Instead of focusing on these beats — as I thought a “sensitive” filmmaker like Meghna would — she dips into Old Hindi Cinema constructs like Iqbal slipping a pair of anklets on Sehmat’s feet. Again, it’s only because it’s going to be useful later — when this very act of love turns into the knife-stab in Vicky’s back. And the way the family retainer is introduced, with glowering eyes, leaves us in little doubt that he’s going to be a thorn in Sehmat’s side. I thought the film might surprise us by showing he’s a spy, too (his roots lie in India) — but this is too straight a narrative for that, and perhaps this is how it was in the book.

I’m happy Raazi is a hit. We need more heroine-driven films to work broadly — and not just in a few metro pockets. But the film is broad, too, as is Alia Bhatt’s performance, though she is a victim of the writing and filmmaking. She nails the hesitation when her trainer asks her a question — the split-second reaction comes off like a reflex, and you need to be some kind of actor to be able to pull it off. And I liked how the camera lingered hesitantly around her after her first killing, without exactly zooming in to her face. But the film is too reliant on her reaction shots. Every other scene she plays is practically a thought bubble: “PHEW!” “CLOSE SHAVE!” “DODGED A BULLET!” And for the first time, Alia feels hammy in places, doing things because she’s asked to do them and not because the character is in that place. Her lost-little-girl screen presence is a major part of why we respond to Sehmat, but maybe this film needed someone older, someone more of a… woman.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi