Alia Bhatt is a spy next door in ‘Raazi’

The spy genre has traditionally featured male leads. But director Meghna Gulzar turns that norm on its head and brings us Raazi, her 1970-set period spy thriller this weekend, with Alia Bhatt playing a Kashmiri Muslim undercover agent married to a Pakistani army officer to ferret information for India.

“Someone recently asked if I played a typical James Bond kind of spy in Raazi. The answer is no. But a young girl can still kick [butt] without physically going into the action-hero space,” said Bhatt in an interview over the phone with Gulf News tabloid!. In other words, she’s no femme-fatale like Charlie’s Angels.

Based on Harinder S. Sikka’s debut novel Calling Sehmat, Bhatt portrays a young woman who in Bhatt’s words is stuck in an “unusual time involved in an unusual activity” in this fictionalised account.

“But it’s not like she doesn’t have a choice. She makes that choice to go to Pakistan, give up her life and fight for her country at a time it was tense time between Indian and our neighbouring country Pakistan … It’s a true story and that’s what makes it incredible,” she added.

Sehmat was responsible for saving the naval might of India in the 1970s through her intelligence gathering. While the film may evoke patriotic fervour in Indians, it never turns jingoistic — a point that director Gulzar and her team including actor Vicky Kaushal, who plays Sehmat’s on-screen Pakistani husband, swears on.

“Absolutely no. In no way have we bashed Pakistan in this film. That’s not the point of the film. The point we are trying to make is that sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your country … There is a line in the trailer that goes ‘Watan ke aage kuch nahi’ [No one can stand in front of my nation], but ‘watan’ is not Hindustan or Pakistan here,” said Bhatt. And if there’s one filmmaker in Bollywood who has earned the stripes of being a responsible director, it’s Gulzar who has given us hard-hitting procedural films such as Talvar — a clinical account of the murder of the 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and how her parents were accused of orchestrating the crime. The director exercised restraint and never resorted to sensationalism, was the unanimous verdict about the well-received film.

“We are not here for rabble rousing. Apart from being a story about a spy who decides to do it for her country, the film also has to do with human emotions and humanity as a whole,” said Gulzar, adding that the intent of the film was always to remain noble.

“The whole film plays out on a reality and therefore all the characters — Alia and Kaushal — are treading a very fine line. As we know the world is not black and white and the film is not black and white either. There are areas of greys which need to be dealt with responsibly,” said Gulzar.

Apart from its espionage elements, Raazi also delves into the cross-cultural relationship between Sehmat and her Pakistani husband.

“A lot has been communicated in the silences with Iqbal [Kaushal]. It’s unfortunate that she’s a wife and a spy and because of that it becomes difficult to draw a line. Even though she’s a spy, there’s a softness to their relationship that could be heartbreaking,” said Bhatt.

Kaushal, who impressed us in the caste-driven drama Masaan, says that the couple spoke through silences too. His character is a major in the Pakistani army and he belongs to well-connected army family.

“The story is set during the tense period between India and Pakistan. On one hand there is a kind of merger between the two countries where you see a Kashmiri girl being married to a Pakistani, while there’s simmering tensions between the countries,” said Kaushal, who had to undergo a screen-test with Bhatt in order to get the coveted role. But he doesn’t play the hyper-male in uniform, as seen in most Hindi films.

“The beautiful part about me playing Iqbal was that it doesn’t belong to the quintessential stereotype army major that you see in films. What I really admire about the guy is that he has a strong spine, but a tender heart. That layer was incredibly appealing to me,” said Kaushal. His biggest challenge was to bring out the sensitive and humane side of Iqbal to the big screen. But did he fear being portrayed as emasculated in a film told from a woman’s perspective?

“I have never felt the need to be the hero of the film because my introduction into films was Masaan where I was a part of a multi-narrative film. But people took notice of me because they took the story back home and they took every character back with them. I want to be a part of great stories by great filmmakers,” said Kaushal. He compared his career choices to making of a dish where every ingredient has to be in the right proportion for it to stand out.

“Then it’s a win-win situation for the dish and the ingredients used.” As a part of the leg work, Kaushal also had to perfect the Urdu diction.

While the whole novel isn’t adapted to the big screen, a few crucial episodes were culled from the text by Gulzar. So did she exercise self-censorship, considering the sensitivity of the Indo-Pak narrative?

“There wasn’t anything in the story that required self-censorship. I am not that kind of filmmaker where I pick up an inflammatory topic or circumstances to grab eye balls to make a film. That’s not my mandate at all. I pick stories that are important to be told and if there is a fragility to it as far as people’s sentiments then I hold that responsibility,” said Gulzar, a director who has tackled subjects such as surrogacy, arranged marriages and murder in films.

Gulzar, who claims that there was no studio sanitisation of Raazi, says the most intriguing element was the relationship between Sehmat and Iqbal.

“Her relationship with her husband is fascinating because her character is fascinating. The two are interminably intersect. Vicky Kaushal’s character has the same fragility and the vulnerability that Alia’s character, graph and arc of the story has,” said Gulzar.

Her actors also swear that Gulzar’s precise directives helped them perform better.

“There’s nothing controversial in the film. We are not talking about who is right or who’s wrong. We are just talking about the extraordinariness of a situation among unsung heroes. What happens to those unsung heroes who choose to give up their lives for their country and remain anonymous. Raazi is their story,” said Bhatt. Perhaps, the actors are also hopeful that their latest film will do what a few history books may not have done successfully. Educate their viewers on what went down in the 1970 India-Pakistan war.

“Cinema has the power to paint the picture of history in our minds. We have done that through human emotions, real emotions. That is the best way to learn — go through the archives of the history pages. If someone like me can pick up the facts of history, then anyone can,” said Bhatt.

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Raazi is out in the UAE on May 10.

QUOTE-UNQUOTE

“There’s no method to my madness and there shouldn’t be as well since it could my performance structured … I am not the one who’s brilliant, but it is the writing which has to be brilliant for me to do justice to any role.” — Alia Bhatt on her crackling performances in films such as Udta Punjab.

“I don’t do films to win awards.” — Alia Bhatt.

“Meghna is a soft, gentle and very clear director. She lets her actors do their jobs, but there were clear guidelines and clarity to our characters … She trusts her actors, lets them explore and do things at a pace they wish to go. That’s my biggest take away from working with her.” — Alia Bhatt on her process with Gulzar.

“Raazi isn’t just a film about India-Pakistan. It deals with human emotions and about people who are caught up in an extraordinary situation.” — Vicky Kaushal on the film.

“Talvar is one of the best films I have seen. It takes a lot of guts to handle such a topic. There are films that you can’t take much liberty with as they are sensitive subjects. But Meghna owned up to it. She’s fantastic.” — Kaushal on Gulzar.

“Gender doesn’t play up. Content is king … If anything, a woman doing a testosterone-charged subject will give the film an extra energy because it is a different perspective. And why should men have all the fun? Why not have a female perspective on a spy film?” — Gulzar on gender disparity in Bollywood.