Meghna Gulzar’s new film “Raazi” (Willing) tells the story of a Kashmiri woman who operated as an Indian spy in Pakistan in the 1970s. Based on Harinder Sikka’s book, “Calling Sehmat”, the spy thriller has Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal in lead roles.
The filmmaker spoke to Reuters about “Raazi”, why her father, the acclaimed Bollywood director and lyricist Gulzar, had reservations about her making it, and the changing nature of patriotism in India.
Q: Which part of “Calling Sehmat” had enough appeal for you to turn it into a movie?
A: For me, the core thread of the story, which is the girl’s journey, was what stood out for me and that is what I picked out to make a film. In fact, my father, when I first told him… because this book had first come to him… he couldn’t understand why I would want to make this film. But there were layers that I saw, and that he saw later when he read the screenplay.
Q: What were your father’s reservations?
A: He felt it was just another thriller, and there was violence. And I said: “No, there is more that I can see. Let me show it to you.”
Q: The female spy in cinema has mostly been the femme fatale. Sehmat is the very opposite. Was that a conscious decision?
A: It was a very conscious decision. Extremely conscious. I wanted Sehmat to be vulnerable and fragile, because her circumstances are so unpredictable - there is no way to know how things will turn. So, that fear has to remain in her for her to be real and relatable. She cannot suddenly become Lara Croft. That is not my sensibility as a filmmaker either. We wanted to keep her feminine and in flowy pastels, to keep her real and identifiable.
Q: How much of the book did you rely on?
A: The core thread of the story that I picked out are from the book, but a lot of detailing, like her training, for example, is not there in the book. The third act is different from the book, and it had to be. The book just keeps going on. I have to close the film, and close it cinematically. Key plot points have been put in to lead up to the climax, which is not there in the book.
Q: How do you connect the patriotism that Sehmat felt to what someone her age today feels about their country?
A: You don’t adapt to what it means or feels today. Because you are telling the story of ‘71. You stay true to that emotion and hope that it is a nice thing to remember, that it used to be like that. But you cannot compromise and try and put today’s interpretations into a film which is set in 1971, to make it more understandable or relatable. That would be being dishonest to the story.
Q: Did Sehmat’s Kashmiri identity give you an added layer to the story?
A: I didn’t dissect it or overthink it, because then you’ll get frightened and not make the film. Because there are too many discourses which can open up in this film. You need to remain focused on your core emotion that you want to convey, which is this girl, her immense selflessness, her patriotism as it meant in 1971 and her innate strength. Those were the pegs for me. Everything else is incidental and circumstantial, whether it is the India-Pakistan dynamic or Kashmir figuring in it.
Q: How did you go about designing a spy film in an era where technology was not very advanced? Were people forthcoming with information on methods used in those days?
A: They were not. (Laughs) So you use personal associations, you have informal conversations. And they have to trust your integrity enough to not compromise their faith in you. You use a little bit of imagination, and apply some logic.
For example, we had to show her travel from Kashmir to Pakistan. We had to research how much time it took in those days. There were no trains, borders were not fenced. All these things factor in the film, because you have to show it visually. The book can get away with saying: “She went to Kashmir”. But how did she go? We have to show that.
Q: We’ve always seen patriotic films in Bollywood, but the flavor seems to have changed in the last few years.
A: (Interjects) Because the flavour of patriotism has changed in the last few years.
Q: But your sensibilities seem to be different.
A: Which is why my patriotism is from 1971 and not 2018 (laughs).
Q: What do you have to say about the patriotism of 2018?
A: It is not just patriotism, but all sentiments. We have reached a point where we need to amplify it for it to seem real. But for me, the more it is amplified, the hollower it feels.
This is a very personal thing, but I wish that as a people… there was a sabhyata (dignity) in us, which has become less today. It is about being up to speed with trends, consuming, spending power, which are all outcomes of progress and modernisation. And because there is a vacuousness there, you try and find pegs to strengthen your identity. Which is why this whole thing is now posturing. This is my explanation of it.
Q: Is the film industry feeding this vacuousness?
A: Why blame just the film industry? It is not just the industry doing it. You have TV serials, social media discourse, fast food chains. It’s everyone.
Editing by David Lalmalsawma