Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Rajit Kapoor
Stars: 4 out of 5
There’s nothing more satisfying than feasting on an immersive spy thriller that’s unconventional, cerebral and sharp.
Powered by brilliant performances from Raazi’s collective cast, director Meghna Gulzar paints a riveting and tense portrait of a coltish Kashmiri bride Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) who marries into an influential Pakistani household filled with honourable army men to distil sensitive intelligence information.
Even though it’s an espionage drama, Gulzar manages to bring out the humane sides of all those who seem to be mere pawns in the high-stakes game where slyness and ruthlessness are rewarded. There are no bombs, but sharp minds at work here.
The movie hurtles you back to the 1970s where India is on the brink of war with its neighbour Pakistan.
Goodwill between the two countries is fast eroding, but Sehmat and Iqbal’s (Vicky Kaushal) matrimonial union is smooth, as their parents — Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma) and Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapoor) — are thick friends who are convinced that their offsprings made a good match.
It’s a cross-cultural arranged marriage laced with deception as its foundation.
While Syed’s intentions are noble, Khan believes his daughter made a perfect fit as a covert operative and is willing to martyr her for India’s greater good. It is an extraordinarily grave situation, but Sehmat — played compellingly by the powerhouse talent Bhatt — plays along with wide-eyed patriotism.
Her preparation to become an unassuming Indian spy is swiftly shown in the first half. Her relationship with her mentor Khalid (Jaideep Ahlawat) as she clumsily learns the ropes of being an amateur undercover agent is engaging. Her slow transformation from a college student to an assured spy is believable due to Bhatt’s cracking form.
The thriller picks up pace and turns ominous and explosive once Sehmat enters the Pakistani household as an angelic-but-plucky bride.
Based on selected portions of Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, Bhatt is in total control here as a woman who is this waif-like bride with steely resolve. Her deceptive frailness makes you want to cheer for Sehmat, even though she is artfully manipulating all those around her. The scenes in which she struggles to draw the line between personal and professional calls is tenuously shown.
Credit has to go to director Gulzar for never indulging in jingoism or chest-thumping patriotism. There are no provocative speeches or vilification of Pakistan unnecessarily, but just a bunch of complex individuals trying to grapple with an unusual situation around them.
This film is also an intriguing snapshot of the futility and politics of war and a reminder of how unsuspecting humans are the worst-hit casualty in such battles.
The second half of Raazi is potent with soon-to-hit doom and gloom. Gulzar brings out the dizzying, spiralling twists at the end with studied ease.
One of my favourite scenes from Raazi is the confrontation scene between Sehmat and the integrity-filled Iqbal — who are so sensitive and tender towards each other.
Their nuanced relationship and the growing tenderness between them seemed organic. While Bhatt has a string of emotionally explosive scenes and complex layers to tap into, Kaushal shines in his limited space. Their face-off is heart-wrenching (keep your tissues handy).
Raazi is an example of a film that has been perfectly cast. There’s no misstep on the acting front by anyone. Bhatt does the heavy-lifting here, but all those around her pitch in perfectly.
The plot also moves at a rapid pace and has enough twists to keep you invested in Sehmat and her bid to save India. She wears no capes like a quintessential superhero or vertiginous heels like super spies, but seemed to have enough grit and mettle to carry forward her duties, even if her loved ones became collateral damage.
The scene in which Iqbal’s father (Sharma) defiantly exclaims how a chit of a girl could defeat Pakistan is telling. Had it not been a true story, we could have questioned the audacity of the events. Perhaps, that’s what makes Raazi, one of the finest films of 2018, triumphant and defiantly good.