Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

May 11, 2018

Spy high!

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 9:34 pm

May 11, 2018

Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Rajit Kapur, Shishir Sharma, Jaideep Ahlawat, Arif Zakaria, Ashwath Bhatt, Amruta Khanvilkar, Soni Razdan

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Two scenes, separated by well over an hour in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, are key to understanding the arc of the film’s protagonist, Sehmat, a 20-year-old Kashmiri girl played by Alia Bhatt, who is embedded in Pakistan to gather intel for the authorities back in India.

The first occurs while Sehmat is undergoing training to become a spy. On being informed that the job can involve taking a person’s life, she’s momentarily taken aback. “Koi problem?” her trainer asks contemptuously. Her cutting response – a single line of dialogue, no more – is a nice reminder of her young age, and her innocence or naiveté perhaps in thinking that there might be room for basic humanity in the world she is about to enter.

The other scene, which comes much later in the film, is also hinged on a single razor-sharp dialogue. This one illustrates effectively how the same person has evolved, while at once answering that earlier question about room for compassion when the stakes are so high.

None of what I’ve just shared with you are spoilers in any way if you’ve watched the trailer of Raazi. To recap the plot, this is 1971 when relations between India and Pakistan are especially tense; war is around the corner. Persuaded by her father, Sehmat, a student of Delhi University marries into a high-ranking Pakistani military family to spy for India.

Based on a true story documented in the book Calling Sehmat by Lt Commander Harinder Sikka (retd), the film is a muscular thriller that is refreshingly ‘fuss free’. Director Meghna Gulzar, who has co-written the screenplay with Bhavani Iyer, steers clear of chest-thumping jingoism and impassioned patriotic monologues that have become a staple of this genre. Admirably, there is none of that “my-country-is-better-than-yours” muck-raking that so many similar films find hard to resist. There’s an inherent decency in both the film’s intentions and it’s characters, no matter what side of the border they’re from.

Sehmat’s efforts to settle into her new home and win the trust of the family in order to do the job she’s been recruited for, is the most compelling part of Raazi. Meghna dials up the tension as Sehmat puts her training to use, frequently landing in scenarios where her cover comes dangerously close to being blown. There is also the matter of her marriage with Iqbal (a nicely vulnerable Vicky Kaushal), which, again, plays out differently from what you might expect.

If there are speed bumps in the film, it’s the apparent ease with which our protagonist is shown to conduct her espionage right under the nose of a family of army men. There are other little details that rankle. The film demonstrates the quickest acquisition of singing skills since…forever. And a turning point in the film’s final act hinges on the discovery of a key piece of evidence, but that portion just feels convenient and contrived.

These are minor complaints in an otherwise gripping film. Meghna assembles gifted actors to infuse further credibility into the storytelling. Rajit Kapur and Shishir Sharma are especially strong as Sehmat’s father and father-in-law respectively, but Jaideep Ahlawat makes the biggest impression, bringing a winning dryness to the role of Sehmat’s handler Mir, a ball-busting agent in charge of her training.

It’s Alia Bhatt though who is the beating heart of Raazi. She plays Sehmat with zero affectation, giving us a fully realized character that feels entirely authentic. The film gives her great scope to flex those dramatic chops, and Alia delivers not only in the big emotional and breakdown scenes, but also in smaller moments, making every little head-turn count. It’s a solid performance – from the sheer rigor of her training to be a spy, to the grit she brings to the mission, Alia doesn’t miss a beat.

The film is admirable also because it’s a measured, mostly intelligent thriller that asks us to consider concepts of patriotism and honor without spoon-feeding us with manipulative background music or provocative dialogue. It’s well paced, and set to a thouhgtful score by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy that never distracts from the drama. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Raazi; a worthy follow-up to the director’s last film Talvar.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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