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“Raazi” Should Make You Rethink Your Sense Of Nationalism

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“Raazi” was released in the face of lots of expectations. We had high expectations from Alia Bhatt and the ensemble cast and from our own experience of Meghna Gulzar’s nuanced direction of “Talvar”.

I don’t think anyone was disappointed with “Raazi”. The film is an espionage thriller without the cheap thrills and the stunts, and with little melodrama. It is one of those rare films in which the characters are so well-sketched, that even those with limited screen-time and dialogues manage to steal the light. Alia Bhatt as Sehmat, the ‘pastel-clad spy’ (Meghna Gulzar’s own words for her) is so fragile and determined. Her movements are so graceful and stealthily sharp that we follow her with our eyes with our heart in the mouth, inwardly praying for her safety and success, like nothing else matters. Jaideep Ahlawat as Khalid Mir, an unassuming and very intelligent man, represents the steely and somewhat unpalatable resolve of men in the defence forces – taking tough calls that sacrifice and save people at the same time. And yet, there is a warmth he brings to his role – and the flashes of humanity and concern in his treatment of Sehmat make up for the coldness of his manners and deeds.

Finally, it is Vicky Kaushal, who, as Sehmat’s husband, stays with us. His role is so gratifying, the refinement and gentleness that he wholly embodies breaks away our ‘army man’ stereotype. “Raazi”, among other things, was successful in providing a humane portrayal of the Pakistani army officers, infusing in them a real and justifiable patriotic sentiment for their own nation.

In many nationalism-infused movies made in India (perhaps, in Pakistan too), the enemy is shown as fierce and inhuman, unjust and merciless – sometimes guided by personal motives, so that the hero gets a chance to save the enemy’s people too. “Sarfarosh”, which was a pretty-much realistic portrayal of terrorism in India, had at least given us a little glimpse of the sense of hurt and bitterness that the survivors of Partition carried against the state. Yet, they did not attempt to justify the actions of the antagonist – and in the eyes of the audience, Gulfam Hassan was as undeserving of sympathy as anybody else.

Few films even bother to show what “Sarfarosh” did – a perspective into the reasons of war and conflict from the enemy’s perspective. Often, they are only painted and ‘tainted’ as power-hungry and even as invaders. Our side is always the one with the right values in place – tolerance, sensitivity, honour and propriety, and protection of women and children. And this always runs contrary to the values the enemy holds.

Here however, Meghna Gulzar delicately showcases the unbelievable – how the enemy might also hold the same principles as we do, and that war is as horrifying an experience for them as it is for us. The film is indeed appreciable for its non-jingoistic presentation of nationalism, and the message that loving your country doesn’t mean hating each other comes out very clearly.

At some point in the film though, it seems that Meghna Gulzar not only steers clear from bashing Pakistan but also tries to make a decisive anti-war sentiment. Perhaps, she tries to question the very rationale behind why these conflicts exist, which end up claiming the lives of so many innocent people on both sides – with little consequence to the cause due to which the war began in the first place (Kashmir continues to burn even after the many wars). However, as noble as this intention may have been, they come to us as an overview of the movie, and not through the trajectory of Sehmat’s life, as I would have liked to see.

In the film, Sehmat does not question why she was being placed as a spy in Pakistan. It is understandable – we were on a brink of war and her services were needed to protect the country. However, Sehamt herself takes little efforts to understand the reasons for the conflict. Neither does anybody bother to make her understand these reasons. There is no mention of the atrocities of the Pakistani army against the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, or the influx of refugees that forced us to enter the conflict.

Sehmat gives no concrete reason for her support of the Indian side, other than her blind love for the nation she keeps referring to. Moreover, her sense of duty to the watan is a legacy she carries – and it is a little disturbing that apart from this one reason, she doesn’t have any other to risk her life. Why couldn’t she have said that “I fear that the frontal attack Pakistan will launch will destroy my territory” or that “their actions are unjustified” or that “they should grant Bangladesh the freedom of self rule they want” – and therefore, “these are the reasons I am willing to work as a spy”?

On the other hand, the reasons she offers as to why she became ‘raazi’ for the dangerous mission are that she carries patriotism in her blood and that she doesn’t want to disappoint her father. Thus, it seems that there is no rationale offered for her desire to work against the enemy – and she never questions it either. And because we are following Sehmat’s story, we too, as the audience, are not able to get clear socio-political insights into all that was happening in 1971.

A sentiment should be substantiated with facts, otherwise it wavers – like Sehmat’s patriotism did, in the end. In the end, she does question her mentor, confronting him for killing her guiltless husband, when all she had asked for own life to be taken away had she been caught. “This is how it is in a war”, he retorts back, rather heartlessly, to which she replies, “Take me away before I completely become like you”. Needless to say, Sehmat remains traumatised for the rest of her life, carrying in her conscious mind the weight of those she killed, who were merely echoing the same sentiments she did, at that time.

As mentioned before, this is where “Raazi” seems to touch upon the futility of wars, the senseless destruction of lives it causes, the emotional damage it has on the minds of those involved – and most importantly, how blind nationalism, without the sense of what is morally right and wrong, serves no purpose. However, because it refrains from taking a clear stand through Sehmat, she somehow gets reduced to a brave Indian whom we should be grateful to – for saving India from war catastrophes.

The fact she and so many of our soldiers, combatants, intelligence officers and others not only put themselves in mortal danger for us – and also the fact that they rendered their mind prone to mental trauma and suffering (that comes from loss and taking the lives of others) – is not sufficiently highlighted. If it had, maybe the film would have also opened a conversation on the wisdom of conflict-resolution and peace-building. It could have gone one more step ahead in humanising the faces of the people from Pakistan. I understand that this would have been a very tall task. With the worsening conditions in Kashmir and the increasing sentiment of aggressive nationalism in India, the film would have run into trouble.

Also, there’s the fact that in the war in 1971 or the other ones we have fought with Pakistan, we have seemingly always been on the defensive side, protecting our territories from attacks. To say that the war was futile would, in my opinion, be an injustice to the martyrs who had fought for India. What I am trying to say that maybe we should do what Meghna Gulzar could not – delve into the intrinsics of war and conflict, stop glorifying it, and as citizens, try to build a consensus against it in future.

If “Raazi” can make us do this, I think it will have achieved far more than the box office collections and the positive reviews it is getting.

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  1. Dristi Jain

    My mother absolutely insisted that I watch Raazi since she really loved Alia Bhatt’s acting in the movie. That’s one of the first movies I finished watching during this lockdown and I read your article today so the movie’s quite fresh in my head. This article has started a different line of thinking and questioning for me where I question both the movie and the reality surrounding it. Though I’d like to add that perhaps, the reason they did not add more details about the socio-political scenario since it may shift the audience’s focus from the autobiographical story of the spy to the scenario at that point of time?

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