It takes one great poet to quote another great poet, regardless of political ideology or religion. In the moving song, “Ae Watan”, composed for daughter Meghna Gulzar's Raazi, Gulzar quotes from Alama Iqbal's nazm sung by school children in Pakistan:
Lab pe aati hai duaa bann ke tamanna meri
Zindagi shamma ki soorat ho khudaya
(From the lips comes a prayer in the form of a desire
A candle burns itself to provide light for others).
In the film, singing these lines formally marks an important milestone, when Sehmat Khan, an apprentice spy, wins the trust of her Pakistani family. At a time when in real life even a portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Aligarh Muslim University can divide the nation, it marks an attempt to heal. There is some irony in Gulzar using lines from Iqbal's nazm, given that Iqbal was both the man who is said to have pushed Jinnah on the two-nation theory and also the man who composed “Sare Jahan Se Achcha Hindustan Hamara”.
Alia Bhatt's performance as a woman who always puts her nation first is note-perfect
But then Meghna Gulzar's Raazi is precisely opposed to these binaries of good Indians, bad Pakistanis; and the even more insidious binary of good Muslim, bad Muslim. Through the fictionalised tale of a young Kashmiri woman who becomes a spy for India after marrying into a highly placed Pakistani army family, she explores the idea of jang and mulk. If Alia Bhatt's Sehmat is a patriot for spying for India, then so is her husband, a Pakistani army soldier, Iqbal, for standing up to her. As he tells his father, a senior Pakistani army officer: What she did for her mulk, and what we do is also for our mulk.
And when it comes to jang, war, everything is on line - whether it is relationships or lives. The movie, based on Harinder Sikka's dramatised version of a Kashmiri spy's life, is set in the run up to the 1971 war and the critical element of surprise the Indian Navy acquired over a planned attack on INS Vikrant by PNS Ghazi.
She is, after all, a Muslim, and a Kashmiri Muslim.
This was the subject of a recent Telugu movie, The Ghazi Attack, but Raazi is more concerned about the human cost of hate. Sehmat, a young college student in Delhi who chooses to become a spy for India, does so because the blood of freedom fighters flows through her veins. "Main hi to mulk hoon," she says to her Intelligence Bureau handler when he asks why she is willing to risk her life for an abstract cause. But to Sehmat, the cause is real - her father was a spy for India, and her grandfather was a freedom fighter. The question hanging in the air is this: she is, after all, a Muslim, and a Kashmiri Muslim.
But that is Meghna Gulzar's triumph; that she does not underline every sentiment and put it in neon to be easily consumed in these times of binary divisions. Sehmat's relationship with her husband (an excellent, as always, Vicky Kaushal), at first tentative and then close; her increasing affection for her sister-in-law; and even her fondness for her father-in-law is shown delicately, as are the increasingly dangerous actions Sehmat has to take, to maintain her cover.
Vicky Kaushal, as Sehmat's husband, is excellent, as always
Alia Bhatt's performance as a woman who always puts her nation first is note-perfect, with just the right mix of vulnerability and guile.
As she adjusts to her new home, new family and new nation, she hangs on to some elements of her old life, like listening to Bade Ghulam Ali, or making kahwa. Her discomfort every time India is mentioned is acute - whether it is her father-in-law preening about how "woh aasman dekh rahe honge aur ham unke peron talen zameen kheench lenge". And visible but quickly masked.
How Sehmat works the spy network in Pakistan, how she adjusts to her new family, how she manages to outwit her enemies at every stage, providing valuable information to India – where the establishment is typically shown to be disbelieving and slow to react – makes for a movie that is absorbing and entertaining. And relevant in these extremely fractious times where everyone's patriotic credentials are determined on the basis of their identities.