Alia Bhatt's stellar performance keeps you invested in ‘Raazi’. Her transition from the gullible girl to a determined woman is subtle. Alia keeps Sehmat’s true alliance hidden just under the surface from her new family, but fortunately, in full view of the audience. Amidst all the compelling performances, this is Alia’s film as she continues to push her boundaries as an actor while challenging our expectations of her. In the same vein, ‘Raazi’ defies the spy genre’s traditional expectations of full-blown action sequences. Instead, Meghna Gulzar’s steady hand gradually ramps up the tension throughout, leading to an explosive final act in this strong dramatic thriller. It also leaves you questioning the repercussions of war on the human psyche.
Watch Raazi to find out if that is indeed the effect Iqbal has on the viewer, but I can tell you already that that is precisely what the film as a whole achieves. Meghna Gulzar’s latest directorial venture, based on Harinder S Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat, is a heart-stopping, heartbreaking espionage drama the beauty of which lies in the fact that, in the era of chest-thumping nationalism and hate-mongering that we live in, this India-Pakistan saga holds out an unexpected healing touch. Raazi is a suspense thriller so tautly executed that I could feel knots of fear in my chest for several hours after I had stepped out of the hall. The unrelenting parade of risks and twists owes as much to Meghna’s conviction as to Nitin Baid’s brisk editing, Kunal Sharma’s intelligently crafted sound design and the nerve-wracking background score by Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Tubby.
Raazi doesn’t try to be very cerebral and that works tremendously in its favour. The tactics of espionage are explained in the simplest manner. Also, the film chronicles a time where a lot depended on the agent’s mental prowess than the technological advancements. That way, actors also get a chance to explore their abilities. The actors sometimes falter with their accent and dialect, but intrigue around Sehmat’s adventures doesn’t give them much time to complain. Raazi is a sensibly written and finely performed film that takes a close look at the ordinary lives of extraordinary people. Not to miss.
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.
Raazi is an excellent film because of how easily it could have not been one. On another day, this might have well been a jingoistic Neeraj Pandey actioner called Naam Sehmat. But Gulzar and her co-writer Bhavani Iyer don’t lose cultural context of their material. Alia Bhatt is terrific, but she works in this role for the precise reason Sehmat manages to remain undercover in broad daylight – she is fragile, tiny, tender and uncomfortable and rarely looks capable enough to understand what is at stake. Raazi’s only shortcoming lies in the one part it invokes the book’s purpose – the opening scene, present day, on a ship, a naval commander proudly narrating the girl’s story to a new batch. This is at odds with the film’s anti-war core. He seems to be paying tribute to the woman who saved millions, rather than mourning the price she paid. Remove this – it looks to have been added separately to make the film less “balanced” – and Raazi thrives on its individualism.
The plot in itself is quite compelling, with fine parallels between a daughter-in-law winning over and fitting into her household contrasted with the reasons a spy would have for the same, but Raazi frequently makes itself hard to take seriously. Raazi was meant to be a realistic thriller but, thanks to Sehmat, it keeps spiralling towards cinematic melodrama. With her innocent face and her round cheeks - that bounce with the recoil of the gun she fires - Bhatt really looks the part of the naive little operative, which is what makes it heart-breaking that she can't pull it off as well as she should. There is the constant sense of self-consciousness to her performance, making Sehmat seem like a girl playacting as a spy instead of an actual spy. That might clear the average bar for a mainstream Hindi film, but Gulzar and Bhatt deserve to be held to a higher standard. It's not enough to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Child.