Director’s Cut: Meghna Gulzar on Alia, Raazi, Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi is pathbreaking for many reasons. It takes a story with immense potential for Bollywood’s current favourite ism – jingoism – and turns it into cinema with a unifying, healing touch.

Anna MM Vetticad June 14, 2018 11:42:53 IST
Director’s Cut: Meghna Gulzar on Alia, Raazi, Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi is pathbreaking for many reasons. It takes a story with immense potential for Bollywood’s current favourite ism – jingoism – and turns it into cinema with a unifying, healing touch. It tells an India-Pakistan tale, yet no one uproots hand pumps to single-handedly vanquish the Pakistan Army. It has so far reportedly netted Rs 120 crore-plus within India, defying the Hindi film industry’s self-defeating belief that women-led films will not earn big bucks.

In Director’s Cut today, Ms Gulzar – whose next film is on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw – discusses Raazi’s success, her politics and Alia Bhatt. Excerpts:

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Alia Bhatt-starrer Raazi is based on the book Calling Sehmat

(Spoilers ahead)

How did you spot the possibility of an understated film like Raazi in Harinder Sikka’s Sehmat Calling which some critics consider a jingoistic book?

If I tell you this is how we orchestrated it from the start, I’ll be lying. The book is expansive. I wanted to keep the core thread, which is the strongest thread – Sehmat’s journey from being taken out of university in Delhi, sent to Pakistan and everything that happens with her till her return. That’s what we (writer Bhavani Iyer and she) culled out.

In that, we needed to explain this journey in the most interesting way possible. The book doesn’t detail many things. In fleshing out the characters, for me the summation of the story was that she came back and chose to have her husband’s child, because she didn’t want to kill any more, and that she had fallen in love with him. That was my starting point for fleshing out Iqbal’s character. The way Iqbal is written in the film is not how he is in the book at all. Once you knew what he was like, you are then characterising his family because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

We also needed to humanise Sehmat a lot more. In the book she’s a hero without kinks in the armour. If we did that on film, you would not have invested in the character. The audience needs to see the consequences of her actions on her conscience, which is why, along with destroying an entire family she is herself destroyed by the time she returns.

When we landed on this we realised, my god the cost of war is always human. It doesn’t matter what side of the border that human is standing. So it all happened organically. Also it’s our sensibility to keep it simple. Many things are understated because the audience is pulled closer to your narrative when they’re also connecting the dots rather than you laying it all out for them.

Why do you think Raazi has done so well, considering that Pakistan bashing and bashing our own Muslims dominate the current public discourse in India?

Honestly, Anna, I think this public discourse of Pakistan bashing or Muslim bashing evaporates if you take it out of the realm of social media. If anything, Raazi’s performance proves that to some extent.

From the experiences of liberal friends and my own, I know it is not on SM alone.

Maybe I’ve been fortunate, I’ve not encountered that in inter-personal interactions so maybe my lens is different, but two things could have happened here. From the trailer, people who subscribe to this Pakistan bashing or community bashing would have gone to see Raazi thinking it will feed their ideology, come out and said, “This is pacifist crap.” And the numbers would have dropped. But what happened was, people saw it and said, “Wow this is a whole different perspective on Pakistanis and Kashmiris.” They told others to see it for this reason, so more people did.

Obviously then Raazi’s pacifism, its position on Pakistanis or a Kashmiri has not rubbed off wrongly on people.

In the past four years, Bollywood has indulged in high-decibel, chest-thumping patriotism. Did your producers pressure you or well-wishers advise you to up Raazi’s patriotic decibels?

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Meghna Gulzar.

As surprising as it may seem, that didn’t happen. I don’t know why. I would like to believe the narrative is so powerful, that one didn’t feel the need for it. I feel fortunate for that because the tonality of the film would have gone for a toss. I don’t think I could have executed it because if you look at any of my films you will see it’s not in my sensibility to up the decibels. I didn’t do it in a film like Talvar where there was so much noise about one perspective on that case, and to counter it you needed to speak as loudly about the other perspective. It’s not in my personality to do that.

Is it wrong to consider Sehmat’s behaviour towards Iqbal or Hidayat’s towards Brigadier Syed acts of betrayal?

Not at all. She did betray them. He did betray his friend. If you view it in isolation, it’s a betrayal. If you consider the reason for that betrayal, it serves the larger purpose of your duty to your country. Then you weigh the two. That doesn’t, even for me personally, condone the betrayal. But it is a choice you make. So I put myself in the feet of soldiers who are tremendously galvanised to not be emotional if they have to fire at the enemy. I would like to believe that for that fraction of a second, irrespective of which side of the border they’re on, there will be that one moment of moral questioning, where they will have that one thought, or apologise or pray to their god. The humanity never dies, no matter how galvanised you are.

Even with Sehmat, how to end this film? One thought was, can we just say she’s dead? Because that’s what the book says. I was like, death would be an easy way to not deal with your conscience. I would like to show her alive and dealing with the consequences of what she has done. That in its own way is saying that no matter how heroic or patriotic she may be, even she doesn’t entirely approve of all she’s done.

The larger question raised by Raazi is: everyone knows the cost of war is human and there is pain on both sides of the divide, so who benefits from this confrontation and why are we fighting?

Good question. And a historical one. See Anna, I felt validated when I visited Kashmir four times last year, thrice for the film and once on vacation. The people come up to you, ask where you are from, then the next question is, “You’re finding everything all right here, na? You’re not feeling unsafe, no?”

I’m speaking of main towns like Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam. I know there is unrest in the area, but for any people of a country to have to ask that to visitors from another state is grossly unfair. It’s not like we don’t have unrest elsewhere in India. But the way it is highlighted, all people of Kashmir are painted with the same stick. It’s incredibly unfair.

Those are warm, welcoming, loving people suffering due to this kind of communication. Their livelihoods, their children’s futures are at stake.

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Rajit Kapur and Alia Bhatt in a still from Raazi

My habit, any time I go to a place, is to ask the local people, “Kaisa chal raha hai?” Just to understand the pulse of the people. And the main thing I got back, and this is to answer your question now, was that “Hamara toh football banaya hua hai. Kabhi iss taraf se khade ho jaate hai aur hamare baare mein bolke humko uss taraf kar lete hai, kabhi uss taraf se khade ho jaate hai hamare bare mein kuchh aur bolke idhar kar lete hai. (We are being kicked around like footballs by both sides).” My point is, when the people of a country are reduced to tools to further political, administrative or personal interests, that’s when it becomes truly unfair.

It’s done not only in Kashmir, it’s world over, and in other parts of India.

Raazi has been made in a scenario where a public articulation of anti-Muslim views has become common. Why is this happening?

I like to believe it’s a false sense of assertion of identity or recouping your identity. The need for it I don’t see at all because it’s not like the majority community’s identity is under threat. But there is something like a militarisation of a section of people who feel it is crucial to assert their identity or communal ideology. Whether that comes from a valid reason or a sense of insecurity or of (pauses) joining the, whatever, perceived larger movement, I don’t know. I can only try to make sense of it like this.

Over the years, I’ve seen Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja or whatever processions become bigger, more vociferous, taking over the roads, and for days on end. The God you pray to is not deaf or blind. You don’t need the whole production and decibel levels to get his or her attention. You know. Again these are things you resort to in insecure times, you hold on to whatever identity you can and amplify it. I think it’s a manifestation of a deeper malaise and that’s scary.

What is that deeper malaise?

I’m guessing there is a sense of insecurity not with each other, but the future of you as a people. Think of it this way, no Anna – if you were content, educated, earning enough, felt secure about your life and your children’s future, you would not need to resort to this. These are crutches to help you overcome those gaps.

Raazi is a feminist film, and interestingly you use a song emphasising the patriarchal nature of marriage with the words “betiyaan jo byaahi jaaye, mudti nahin hai…” which is contrary to Sehmat’s actual actions. What was your thought process here?

For me that situation was operating at two levels. The crossing of the threshold is a significant ritual when you marry a girl off in any community – in Christianity, in Hindu culture, Bengalis, Punjabis, the bidaai of the girl, seeing her off to the threshold of the house, and then there are cruel things, girls have to throw things behind their backs, grain, keys, and say “everything you are giving me, I’m returning”, and she is not supposed to turn around during that ritual towards her maternal home or family, I find that extremely cruel. Which is what’s happening here, but there is another layer of where this girl is being sent off – it’s not just the threshold, but across the border.

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Alia Bhatt in a still from Raazi. Image via Twitter

The germ of the song came from here. What I think my father (Gulzar, Raazi’s lyricist) implied with these words, “Fasle jo kati jaaye, ugti nahin hai, betiyaan jo byaahi jaaye, mudti nahin hai” is, you know, what the girl is saying is, there is a finality to this farewell. What those words mean and which allude to real life is that, you know, when you’re harvesting a crop, if you just cut it, that harvest will never grow again – you have to uproot the crop, till the soil again and actually set the soil on fire before you sow for the next harvest.

So I think that is what these lines also say. And “betiyaan jo byaahi jaaye, mudti nahin hai” means once you send the daughter away, she’s not coming back, but visually you see Sehmat turn and hug her father one last time. Later in the song, it’s the father’s point of view, “No, the snow will melt again, the fields will be ripe again, and my blessings will always be with you.” So that’s what this song is saying, you know.

Also, the song speaks of the conventions of marriage, but everything Sehmat does in her marital home is for the home she has left. Were you conscious of that?

We were. See, for me Sehmat is not white or black. The audience comes later but for me as even a writer or maker to invest in her I have to be able to empathise with her. If she is all black, even I will not be able to do that. So, in spite of doing what she’s doing in her wedded home for her homeland, these moments where she despises herself, hates what she’s doing, every time she does something it corrupts a part of her, it was important to keep underlaying that fact through her journey for me to be able to invest in her, which is what makes her grey. You know.

Ae Watan too works at multiple levels. What made you use a Pakistani anthem and ensure that it emotionally resonates with Indians also?

The starting point of the song was that it is sung by Army school children and taught to them by Sehmat. I wanted an ode to the country and it can be any country, so it needs to be something where the children sing and they’re singing for their country, Pakistan, but when Sehmat sings she is singing for hers, which is India. That was the thought behind this song. My father suggested incorporating Dr Iqbal’s words into it, and we used it beautifully like an alaap, a refrain at the beginning and end of the song, because it is sung in schools, and not only in Pakistan. My husband has studied in the Doon School and this used to be his morning prayer.

Lab pe aati hai dua.

Yes. My father has sung it in his school which was undivided India. And it is still sung in Pakistan’s schools. And it is written by the person who wrote Saare jahan se acchha Hindustan hamara. So (laughs) without saying it, you’re saying so much just by putting these words of Dr Iqbal into this song. You know?

Okay, why Alia?

It was instinctive, Anna. From the minute I knew of this story, she was the only face I could think of, knowing the arc of the character, knowing the performance required. Then of course her physicality of a 20-year-old Kashmiri girl.

Also, Alia leaves things a little rough around the edges. She never completes anything to perfection. She does that consciously, so there is a rawness in her performances or the way she interprets her characters which is what I wanted Sehmat’s character to retain in spite of her journey.

She does that in Raazi. Because that’s what makes her more human. You don’t turn into Wonder Woman ya, suddenly, overnight. That girl who saves the squirrel will always remain alive somewhere. So it was a mix of all these things.

Sehmat is young, of course, and she’s just had brief training, but she seems to have great instincts for the job yet she does so much of her work in that bathroom with that transparent glass window next to her. Why did you not cover that glass?

See, at that time, windows didn’t have coverings.

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

A still from Raazi. YouTube

I understand that and I’ve seen many of our country homes don’t even have glass.

Ya, and that window is geographically positioned such that there is nothing in front of it for somebody to look in. It’s also on the first floor, so it’s not like somebody standing outside can see what’s going on.

It’s still a massive risk considering the kind of work she is doing, and the likely vigilance in and around that house considering her father-in-law’s position.  

From the research I did, during this time all eyes and ears were diverted outside. You are always looking at what is coming in from the direction of India or what is going out towards India. Your radar was always pointed outwards. Which is why communication would go via Paris or Dubai. Nobody was looking inwards. That’s one. Two, if you’re facing the window, her equipment is on a ledge under it on the right against a wall. You will not be able to see it from outside unless you’re standing at the window itself. There is no structure at least 50-100 feet in front of that window from where you can look in. You know?

The exterior façade was a real house in Patiala. And at that time cantonments were like that – vast and spread out horizontal in their planning. Only later when your population and Army strength increased you went into vertical planning. So it’s been looked at. (laughing) It may come across as an oversight, but it isn’t. Ya.

But she was a bright girl. Moving the equipment a little further right was simple since it was a large counter. Why did she not do that?

The counter was not in front of the window.


And in the early part of the training you’re supposed to sit, rest your wrist on the table, then tap the machine with the Morse, with the finger. The wrist resting on a platform is important, so that you’re not by mistake touching the lever and sending an unintended combination of dots and dashes. Therefore, sitting, resting the wrist on the platform, then only using the finger to tap is an important part of sending Morse messages.

You know? And covering the window would have attracted more attention because that’s not the norm.

Hmm. Why does no one look twice at Sehmat when she puts up a clothesline on the terrace? It’s the one conspicuous thing she did. She’s after all the daughter-in-law of a well-off family that has so much household help.

The clothesline was already there, she just added another loop. But I’ll tell you, it’s not only the clothesline, my big question to people I met for research was, she’s getting access to all these confidential files people leave lying around their homes. And they told me, please understand this is 1971, people still take files home today, at that time it was not as regimented as it is now. You know. You would give papers to your domestic help or driver to drop it to somebody’s home.

I’ve shown Raazi to the Army ADG PI and several Army people, others communicated to me after seeing it, and not one has pointed out a technical error.

As for the clothesline, in a sequence after the servant is killed it is explained where each servant was at that time. In an Army household, you don’t have 24 hours dedicated people. These are also Army staff who have quarters they retire to when they are not needed in the house. Most importantly, this is a new bride of that house. Who would look at her with suspicion? And why?

I was not expecting suspicion, just people noticing. When she cooks, for instance, one guy does object.

That’s why this happens over a period of time. I’ve used the mehndi fading successively to show the passage of time, from brown to orange to not being there. So if this girl is quick on the uptake, she was also picking up when the house is empty, when to move around. Now for paucity of time and ease of narration I can’t be spelling it out. Because if you see, she often notices, and before she goes on the terrace there is a shot of the family leaving for work, so she’s obviously not randomly doing things.

Considering how bright she was, would she have made the little mistakes that resulted in her cover being blown if it wasn’t for the sense of urgency, knowing that there is a war situation?

Directors Cut Meghna Gulzar on Alia Raazi Muslim bashing and insecurities that lead to majoritarianism

Jaideep Ahlawat, Meghna Gulzar, Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Shishir Sharma, Amruta Khanwilkar, Soni Razdan, Rajit Kapoor, Ashwath Bhatt and Arif Zakaria.

I think so. When she was sent there she was not an accomplished trained operative. She had been given basic training barely for a month and a half. So I’ll give you an example of true life. Ravinder Kaushik who was an agent sent to Pakistan by RAW, he was a theatre actor who was trained, sent, managed to convert to Islam, married, joined the Pakistani Army, rose to rank of Major. How his cover got blown was when another operative went after him and kind of dropped his guard. These trained RAW operatives made mistakes. Sehmat is a 20-year-old girl.

Much of our acceptance of what Sehmat is made to do by India is because we end up liking Iqbal, he’s not cruel to her. But if Iqbal had turned out to be a jerk, does this not amount to prostituting a young woman for the nation? Is that not troubling?

(Long pause) On their first night together, when Iqbal offers to sleep on the divan and not the bed, if she had seduced him and they had ended up having sex, then I would call it prostituting her. He didn’t force himself on her, and she didn’t seduce him, so the physicality of this between the man and the woman was not part of the play. When it did happen it was a girl who had actually fallen in love with this man who wanted him to be close to her. The thing about creative expression is that it is open to interpretation, but this is my take on Sehmat and Iqbal’s relationship.

But that’s my point. We like Iqbal, we see her falling in love with him, but when her father and the agency set this up, there was no guarantee that Iqbal will turn out to be good, that he won’t force himself on her.

So the father is not marrying her into a household of strangers. These two men are friends, so he’s sure he’s not sending her into a family of brutes who will probably molest or maul her on the first night. He knows the family long enough to know that. That also plays a part in sending his daughter, though on a dangerous mission, there is an ironic sense of security because you know the people you’re sending her into.

Maybe so, but many men who appear great metamorphose into monsters in bed. There’s no guarantee that Iqbal would have turned out to be nice. Technically then, isn’t she being asked to give her body for espionage?

(Pause) I’m not sure how to answer this, Anna, because I’m trying to imagine something I have not written. But away from the context of the film, the very nature of a honey trap is this. The way it is executed in Raazi goes beyond being just a honey trap because we give a progression and a delay to the physical consummation of this husband-wife relationship. That’s been done not to glorify this decision whereas it is actually a father sending his daughter as a honey trap, but I know from research that this used to happen a lot. Not all girls were sent as spies, but marriages between people in Pakistan and Kashmir was frequent, and if you put yourself in that time and place, because it was so frequent at the time, perhaps the father saw it as the only way to fulfill the role he could not complete. He did not pull it like a rabbit out of thin air.

Some people think Raazi is too idealistic. What would you say to someone using the term “bleeding heart liberal” or saying that Raazi, your answers in this interview, your approach to inter-community relations etc are too idealistic?

I’m sorry but that’s me and I’m happy being me.

(For Anna M.M. Vetticad’s review of Raazi, click here)

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