Raazi movie review: Meghna Gulzar’s espionage drama delivers high on action and suspense
Meghna Gulzar’s 1971 Indo-Pakistan spy thriller is very much a balanced (anyone remember Talvar?) movie. For a movie about a real-life incident - especially surrounding a war between two countries - this is one of the highest compliments one can give. Raazi, Meghna’s first film in two and a half years, is based on Lt Commander (retd) Harinder S Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat.
The story is simple. A Kashmiri Delhi University girl, Sehmat (played by Alia Bhatt), follows in her father’s footsteps and becomes a spy across the border. Sehmat marries into a high-rank army family in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 1971. Tensions are high because of the activities in East Pakistan and Mujibur Rahman’s landslide victory in the elections. Sehmat is married with a single goal. To trespass into the uncharted territories and be the eyes and ears of the Indian government.
Alia is the clumsy and innocent college student, having to undergo training to transform into the intelligence officer she needs to be. While the first twenty minutes - introducing the characters and the story - is slow, once her training gets going, the pace quickens.
Alia though doesn’t transform into the tough, level-headed agent, she needs to be. There’s an innocence across her facial expressions throughout the movie that ends up diminishing her performance to a level far below her acting highs in Highway and Udta Punjab. It is the supporting cast that carries the extra weight on their shoulders and keeps the movie from derailing.
Once the training is over and Alia is sent to Pakistan, the plot thickens. There are a couple of very interesting scenes between Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapur) and Khalid Mir (one of the finest performances from Jaideep Ahlawat) that set the mood before Alia, the spy, takes over the mantle of dismantling the household.
Mir infuses anger and emotion into an otherwise dry character. Usually playing the baddie (in films like Gangs of Wasseypur), Ahlawat is given the chance to fight the good fight. Mir may be holding back, but in his constraint, a lot is being said.
One has to give credit to Meghna, where credit is due. She doesn’t overdo it. She doesn’t glamorise the life of a spy. Each and every character is shown in the most humane way possible. Doing that with aplomb means that the audience will feel that the situation unfolding in front of their eyes is as life-like as it can be.
Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal), Sehmat’s husband, and her entry point into Pakistan is very understated in his dutiful role as the son of a high-ranking army officer. Kaushal’s portrayal is very nuanced - his love for jazz is a poignant moment in his character’s relationship - but as always, he’s been given the stick. Nonetheless, Kaushal puts in a convincing performance balancing his duties as a son and a husband to a woman from across the border.
Meghna and fellow co-writer Bhavani Iyer have astutely crafted a script that aims to have a steady sense of suspense throughout the movie, ramping it up a notch only during the final couple of sequences of the movie. The pacing is as smooth as a national highway. A steady speed, zipping by only to overtake one car after the other.
What didn’t work was the music. Composed by Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy. The trio has teamed up with lyricist Gulzar, for a soundtrack that may be familiar but doesn’t at all push the boundaries. Alia’s previous movies - Udta Punjab and Highway - have had musical soundtracks that play a wholesome part in the film. In Raazi, the music ultimately does the film an injustice, breaking the rhythm of the movie. Even the background music is a waste. Some people may end up liking the songs outside of the context of the movie. But during the 140-minute movie, I felt it could have done without the musical breaks.
While Meghna doesn’t fall into the trope of Bollywood, she does fumble a little during the end, letting the emotions run a little too much. There is a speech that goes on and on and then there is Alia’s crying. A touch overdone. Meghna and co don’t get complacent at all during the movie. After drawing in the viewer, they keep it moving at a stately pace and that is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Should you watch the film?
Meghna realises the gravity of the story that she is dealing with. She doesn’t get caught up in the jingoism of it. Neither does she let the whole “Kashmiri woman giving up her body to the nation” deter her at all. Her one misstep though is when she and Iyer can’t figure out the full meaning of Sehmat’s sacrifices and what message of patriotism to deliver to the viewer. That leads to a confused Alia, who lets out one too many shrieks during the movie.
Nonetheless, Meghna has done the balancing act very well and with some good scouting, has provided a very plausible movie. Yes, this may be based on a true story, but Meghna has taken some creative liberties.
Watch it not for Alia Bhatt or Vicky Kaushal. Watch it for Jaideep Ahlawat and Shishir Sharma. Watch it not for the true story that it is based on but for the intricately woven suspense that builds up ever so often throughout the movie.
Spy thrillers like this need to be made in India and I for one am glad that Meghna made Raazi. A film on the inner life of a female spy is especially rare. While the film could have been fleshed out a little bit more and had sharper editing, it’s still very much worth a watch on the big screen. Just don’t get caught up in the intricacies of the film.
Thumbs up to Meghna & co for delivering another well-crafted film.