Raazi narrates the story of a Kashmiri woman who agrees to marry a Pakistani army officer in order to spy on Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
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If you look at director Meghna Gulzar’s filmography, you will find that she has a penchant for two things: the unknown and the suspense. While her Talvar (2015) was a brilliant ode to the concept of “trial by media”, her latest feature Raazi is a subtle picturisation of modern, stealth-based espionage. The likes you experience in today’s video gaming world and which reminded me of IO Interactive’s phenomenal Hitman (2016).
It is the 1970s. Alia Bhatt plays Sehmat, the charming and courageous daughter of an Indian businessman Hidayat (Rajit Kapur) whose side hustle as a superficial spy for the Indian government is also a family business. Sehmat is not too surprised when he tells her that he would like her to extend the family legacy by marrying into a Pakistani army family. The transformation from a petite college student to a rookie yet fiery spy makes Sehmat the heart and soul of Raazi, which manages to narrate an espionage thriller in the most passive way possible.
Sehmat’s accord to continue the family legacy on the request, rather than the behest, of her father, is arguably the most interesting part of the film. The reason that she gives for her willingness to agree is another point of brilliance that Gulzar succeeds in carving out, giving us all the more confirmation that this is not a typical Bollywood drama. Of course, because there are no high-octane sequences that you would usually anticipate and revel for in a Bollywood film that chronicles the life of a spy. Last time it was done (Ek Tha Tiger (2012)), the spy fell in love and got hitched. But that doesn’t mean that Raazi does not entertain. Bhatt leads the play like a diligent student working on a side project that consumes her. In one of her best performances to date, she follows director Gulzar’s cues with perfection and coagulates between her college-goer and budding spy airs with absolute finesse. She is the star of the film, shooting delightful sequences at the viewer at every juncture, sufficiently supported by her co-actors.
Being married off to a Pakistani army officer (Vicky Kaushal) is not a happening event for Sehmat, but she is inquisitive about the challenges that she has to face on her way as she hobnobs with the who’s who of both sides of the warring nations. Co-writers Gulzar and Bhavani Iyer carve a drama that is so subtle you will find that blood is spilled without the use of a dagger and that careers are destroyed and government files are stolen without even the wind knowing it. Such is the power of treatment of the original material, the 2008 widely-unknown book titled Calling Sehmat by Harinder Sikka. One of the many reasons why Sehmat’s character connects with the audience is her regular background. There is enough for a family audience to watch, point out, and imbibe in Raazi, much like how it was for Talvar three years ago.
Gulzar uses her art of subtlety to chronicle a popular period in a real-life war, but she does seek help from cinematic liberty. For a discerning viewer, it will feel like Sehmat has everything in place for, whether it is conveniently replicating a classified dossier or eavesdropping a high-profile conversation. The audience is smart enough to detect the contrived nature of any plot these days, but that is still only a small part of Raazi, which nevertheless keeps you hooked with a dose of delight at all times.
Bhatt, along with her performance in Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab (2016), confirms that she is not just a product of nepotism (a hot topic in Bollywood these days) but is someone with real talent and conviction. Kaushal plays a small part as her on-screen husband with a natural attitude, further helping the film stress on Bhatt’s anti-hero character. Jaideep Ahlawat and Rajit Kapoor are the other cast members who put up a good show and carry Raazi to an appealing finish. It is clear that Gulzar put her bets on the cast, the narrative, and her own dialogues, which is why little importance is given to the music and other parameters. Production value is sufficient and introduces realism, while the shots are straightforward without a gymnastic approach that a lot of today’s filmmakers are employing in the name of the avant-garde.
A thoroughly enjoyable espionage flick that has the right amount of all the requisite ingredients, Raazi succeeds as that rare Bollywood thriller you never saw coming. Watch it while you hang your thinking capabilities for tomorrow’s work.