Tag Archives: Alia Bhatt

Did Alia Bhatt Meet the Real Raazi?

“Did Alia Bhatt meet the real Raazi?” asked an audience member at the Delhi Gymkhana’s book club event where author Harinder Sikka was sharing the story of the Kashmiri Muslim spy, Sehmat, whom Alia Bhatt plays in the movie Raazi. It could have been an easy question to answer but as we were soon going to learn, nothing in Sehmat’s world was black and white. Sikka went on to paint an image of his muse, a beautiful, 53-year-old, taciturn lady who floated on this earth as a saint. He met her at the turn of the century in the town of Maler Kotla in Punjab and named her Sehmat in the story.

The movie Raazi, based on Harinder Sikka’s novel, “Calling Sehmat”, tells the story of an Indian Kashmiri undercover agent operating in Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

It took Sikka eight years to piece her story together, bit by bit. At each step, he would take the manuscript to her for a “dekho.” He would search her eyes for truths hidden behind sealed lips. She would cross out the facts only she knew were false. Did she really kill her brother-in-law? Her lips would quiver as her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil. Silence is a hard habit to break. In this way, painstakingly, over eight years, he wrote a book on her brief life as a spy. A promise to keep her real identity secret was made. The book was published in 2008. Ten years later, in April 2018, and a month before the movie based on the book was released, Sehmat died.

Daughter of a Muslim father, she was recalled from Delhi University by him to take his place in service to their motherland, India. It was easy for her to cross the Line of Control (LOC). Kashmiri families from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Kashmir continue to live as one. It was still common for families to visit each other and for their children to inter-marry, said Sikka. For his protagonist Sehmat to marry across the border was therefore not unusual. What was unusual was that she married a Pakistani Army officer to provide India with classified information during the 1971 war.

Young and bold, she entered the home of her husband, who came from a high profile military family, snooped on documents and discussions, and relayed them back to her Indian compatriots. At great risk to her life, she went on to single-handedly save India’s pride, the largest aircraft carrier, I.N.S Vikrant, by revealing Pakistan’s plans to destroy it. No other source could provide this crucial piece of espionage, so close to the chest was this secret held by the senior-most Pakistan army officials. All is fair in war. Love did not fare well when it clashed with patriotism. Love for her country drove her.

Sikka wants to give Sehmat her place in the history of patriots. A list, he feels, that is greatly in need of her. He had promised to keep her identity secret but now that she is no more, he is fighting to share the pictures of the real Sehmat with the world. India needs her daughter from Kashmir to be acknowledged.

The family of Sehmat’s son is loath to reveal her identity. Sehmat’s Delhi University classmate, her first love, is fighting hard to keep her identity secret. They feel it would out her son and put him in danger. Her son is with the Indian Army and was the first person Sikka met in a chance meeting in Kargil.

A son who was in her womb when she returned to India. A son she did not abort. A son she gave up as soon as he was born.

A whoosh of breath and “Achaa” escaped the lips of the audience member seated next to me as Sikka reveals this shocking truth. Another audience member expresses her agreement with the idea that the identity of the son must be kept secret, as outing him would put his life in danger.

Sikka, however, is sure he will be able to share her with the world. His face softens and eyes mist over when he thinks of her. “No she did not look like Alia. She was petite. Even at that age there was not a wrinkle on her face. If you see her picture, you won’t believe people as beautiful as her existed.”

Alia, who was going to play Sehmat in the film, wanted to meet her, he tells the audience member. She begged to at least see her picture. “No,” said Sikka. He did not have Sehmat’s permission to show the pictures to anyone. He did, however, ask Sehmat for a meeting with Alia. She came on the set of the film one day but with the express request for it to be a chance meeting.

It had rained that day. Alia was in her makeup van. Sikka sent her a message to come meet him. Alia, unaware it was Sehmat whom she was going to meet, could not come. Sikka saw the headlights of the car light up and the car drive away. With that went Alia’s last chance of seeing the true hero she was playing in the film.

Alia cried when she learned about her loss. “You could have told me it was her,” beseeched an extremely disappointed Alia.

Sikka is hopeful that soon he will be able to show Alia and the world Sehmat’s photographs.

Read Review of the Movie Raazi
Book: Calling Sehmat by Harminder Sikka, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd. 2008

Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor of India Currents and fascinated by stories from India-Pakistan.

Raazi: Spy on me

“Trust your instinct. It won’t fail you,” Khalid Mir tells Sehmat Khan, a college girl, as he prepares her for an exceptional journey she is about to take. The sound suggestion comes after training her for just a month. Her assignment? To spy on her husband’s family during the India-Pakistan war in 1971

Director Meghana Gulzar’s Raazi is mostly remarkable for the fact that she treats Sehmat as an ordinary girl caught in extraordinary circumstances. She doesn’t hesitate in making her flawed, human, and frail.  We are to understand that her horrific actions are side effects of her occupation rather than a choice.

Adapted for screen by Meghana and Bhavani Iyer, the film is based on an ‘incredible’ true story from Harinder Sikka’s book Calling Sehmat. It follows the journey of a woman who passed on crucial details about a sea attack that the Pakistani Navy was planning on their Indian counterpart.

Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) is cruising through her college education when her ailing father Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapur), a spy himself, asks her to take on his baton after his death. And she does. Country before self, she says, without fully knowing the consequences of her decision. Khalid (Jaideep Ahlawat) does his best to prepare her within the time limit.

The first step is relatively easy. She must marry a Pakistani military officer Iqbal Syed (Vicky Kaushal) and gain access to the daily activities of his father, Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma), and brother Mehboob Syed (Ashwath Bhatt), both high ranking officers.The couple’s relationship develops slowly, but surely, and remains untainted for the most part except when they are on country duty.

The second bit is tricky as even though an informant, she doesn’t have the finesse to cover her activities like a pro. Communication systems weren’t as advanced at the time, and when Sehmat lands in trouble, she is left alone to save herself in crisis.

The success of Raazi lies in the muted tone of Meghana’s direction and the fact that she keeps it real. The focus quietly and subtly stays on Sehmat’s inner conflict throughout. It is remarkable that such a character actually existed, and reports spell out the traumatic effects of the experience on off-screen Sehmat. Her husband, in compelling contrast, is shown as transparent and earnest.

Though it is designed as a taut thriller, Meghana rightly resists the temptation to go overboard with the theatrics. Even in the final confrontation scene between the husband and Sehmat, she dials down the drama; he has an emotional reaction while Sehmat remains sensible in her survival mode. Ditto the scene where her father voices the conflict of his decision to his daughter. Or the scenes where she feels torn between humanity and survival.

The 1971 period setting is as strikingly genuine as Meghana’s treatment of the film. Production designer Subrata Chakraborty recreates Pakistan and India visuals of the time with spectacular accuracy and care. Cinematographer Jay I. Patel does an impeccable job of capturing the internal and external landscapes to stay within the pragmatic mood. The flow of the movie felt a bit jarring, am not sure if it was due to Nitin Baid’s editing or the writing.

Post the vivacious Mirzya (2016), Shankar-Ehsan-Loy team up Gulzar once more to create another rich album. Both versions of Ae Watan deliver on the spec of subtle patriotic fervour. The melodious Dilbaro envelops you right away with its lovely, delicate and warm sentiment. My favourite was the inspirational title song Raazi, where Arijit Singh sounds fresh and the song’s power lies in its resounding notes providing the right backdrop for Sehmat’s rigorous training.

The performances are fantastic across the board. Actors Rajit Kapur and Shishir Sharma play Sehmat’s father and father-in-law with conviction and grace, conveying their zealous love for country. Ashwath Bhatt is effective as the brother-in-law consumed by the mystery of Abdul’s murder, causing much stress to Sehmat.  Mother Soni Razdan replicates her real-life role on screen, making a significant impact despite her short appearance as Teji. Sanjay Suri makes a fleeting guest appearance. Arguably, Sehmat shares the most complicated and longest relationship with her mentor and boss, played by Jaideep Ahlawat with ample screen time. Restrained, layered and precise, he is a class act. Did we note a slight chemistry in their interactions?

Vicky Kaushal (of Masaan fame) returns with his trademark goodness and plays the husband with heartbreaking sensitivity. He even defends his wife after she escapes. Meghana treats his character with ample love.

Alia Bhatt embraces Sehmat in body and spirit, according her performance with the inherent grace and power only she knows. Her interpretation of Sehmat is superlative although you do see traces of Alia in some scenes. She dials down her body language and demeanour to suit that era, looks pristine and manages to hold her vulnerability intact as she goes about her business. The lovely face remains stoic as she slowly loses control of the situation. Definitely a thumbs up!

Kudos to Harinder who managed to trace the woman and write this book, making Raazi possible. Meghana tells her story delicately yet surely, without getting pulled into the emotions, making it a fine, compelling piece of work.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Raazi. 2018. Director: Meghana Gulzar. Writers: Meghana Gulzar, Bhavani Iyer. Players: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat. Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Theatrical release: Junglee Pictures, Dharma Films.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.