Being Unpatriotic is Injurious to Health: Tatiana Szurlej

Even the most sensitive about their history Indian nationalists, who were ready for the greatest sacrifices in the name of the mythical queen Padmavati, turn a blind eye to the presentation of India as a wicked and unfair player. The immersion of the story about cruel people who want to win at all costs in a patriotic sauce is enough for viewers to believe in this patriotism, just as the words “smoking kills” is seen as sufficient in films about people who indulge themselves in pleasure of addiction. #Author670328-raazi

Raazi: Being unpatriotic is injurious to Health

BY  Tatiana Szurlej

Spy movies can be divided into two main groups, and usually they either glorify the work of a spy, helping their heroes by depicting the enemy in a bad light, or they present a more complex picture, focusing on the moral aspects of espionage. Films of the second type usually contest, at least to some extent, the work of spies, presenting them as people acting against one of the basic social rules, which is honesty. Spies presented in this, second type of films are thus portrayed as deceivers, who, of course, act in the name of higher values, but with not fully accepted methods. As the story progresses the said spies, eventually become entangled in an extremely difficult situation in which they are forced to act to the detriment of people whose trust they have gained, and often begin to love. Raazi  (2018) seems to be one of such films, but suddenly the story changes drastically, as if the director got scared of her work.

Raazi is a story about Sehmat Khan, a daughter of a Kashmiri spy who is unable to continue his mission because of illness. However, as the neighboring countries are about to enter a war, he decides to send his daughter to hostile Pakistan on a mission. The girl, raised with the spirit of patriotism and convinced that there is nothing more important than serving the country, agrees to marry a young Pakistani man and move in with his family, so that she can pass useful information across the border to India. It soon turns out, however, that the new family is full of wonderful, warm people who accept the girl with open arms and without prejudices related to her Indian origin, and this should – at least theoretically – ignite some ethical problems, and question this kind of missions, but it doesn’t. Although the father of the Pakistani family sometimes says something against India, his attitude proves only that he has completely accepted his daughter-in-law and by expressing his unflattering opinions, does not treat her as a woman coming from the enemy’s country. Moreover, the most inspiring character is the young husband who not only understands how difficult it is for a girl to be in a foreign, unfriendly country, but also does not force his wife in to any intimate relationship, understanding that it is important for them to first know and like each other. All this should make the heroine understand, at least a little, that she will have to pay a much higher price for her task than she had expected, since it is easier to act against the wicked people than those, with whom we begin to feel emotionally connected, still the director is reluctant to deepen this issue.

The situation in which Sehmat has become intertwined seems to be difficult for the filmmakers. They do not want to explore this issue too deeply, but at the same time they cannot escape from it, and in effect the film seems to live its own life and get out of control of its authors, who in turn fight to subjugate it at all costs. The story runs towards the internal conflict, and the moral problem faced by the protagonist attached to her new family, and especially to her husband. The director however tries to tame it by making it a suspense spy story, which is an unsuccessful attempt, completely. While trying to answer the question of what the conflict heroine is really facing, some critics regard her sacrifice as a kind of prostitution, seeing a young girl selling body for her homeland in Sehmat, but I think that these reactions are exaggerated, especially in the country in which arranged marriages are the norm and no one approaches them in this way. What’s more, as it has already been mentioned, the young husband of the protagonist is a man, with whom it is difficult not to fall in love, and yet there are no emotions associated with this conflict, so it is no wonder that the film raises some questions, which would not have risen, if the story was conducted in the right manner. The fact that the viewer does not know what is inside the heroine does not seem to be the intention of the filmmakers, being rather the result of the aforementioned dilemma, which they faced when the work began to get out of control. After each spying action, Sehmat, a seemingly tough girl, is portrayed as a terrified and distraught person, but the viewer does not learn anything more about her feelings, until the hysteria shown in the climax – a typical element of Alia Bhatt’s films. As a result, we do not get neither a fanatically blinded heroine, who begins to soften, nor a sensitive girl who undertook the mission without knowing how difficult it will be to cope with. Therefore, because the heroine is rather an unremarkable person, also the danger to which she is exposed does not act on the viewer as it should, because it is difficult to identify with her and as a result to support her or fear for her life. The director tries to build tension, focused especially on the figure of a bit fiendish servant, but even here she could have tried harder. Despite all the actions taken by Sehmat she comes out safely in the last moment, these scenes do not build tension, and everything comes to the heroine surprisingly easily. Of course, the easiness of the task could be provided deliberately, as an element causing loss of alertness and leading the heroine to make a fatal mistake, and subsequent series of murders committed to hide it, but again, this is just a wishful thinking, because even if Sehmat has to kill, her mistake is not evident here.

The reason why the viewer neither supports nor hates the heroine of the film lies in the fact that Alia Bhatt is not a good actress and outside of scenes of hysteria, her performances are less than average (probably this is the reason why in so many films there is a scene in which the heroines of Bhatt flutter around the screen shouting their pain). Yet, in Raazi, especially at the beginning, Bhatt performs quite well, probably because she plays a person, who also acts and pretends to be someone else, and as such, unconsciously, or maybe with full consciousness, she uses her somewhat artificial performance as an asset.The film therefore takes the best and worst elements of Alia Bhatt’s work, interweaving the artificiality with despair, but it is not enough to build up the tension and gain sympathy or dislike of the viewer. Although it seems quite bizarre, there is nothing suspicious in the girl’s artificial behaviour for any member of her new family, except the aforementioned old servant, but viewers need something more to understand whom they watch, especially since they know why Sehmat is in Pakistan, and they accompany her also in times of doubt. Presenting the spy crying in bed and while taking shower is not enough if someone had chosen such a story for the movie. In the initial sequences of Raazi, showing the training of the young adept, we find scenes where she doubts her abilities and moments in which the unexperienced girl naively imagines that the fact that she tries her best is enough to become a perfect spy. Later, however, such scenes disappear, and even if the filmmakers try to smuggle some elements of fear and doubts, they are not very convincing. Of course, we can agree that the heroine is already a trained spy who cannot show her weakness, but why do we have to witness that crying in the shower then? The intentions of the filmmakers at the moment of the climax are clear, but it would be better if the explosion of despair presented was preceded with the accumulation of hidden, but at the same time very much present emotions which are unfortunately absent in the film.

Because so little is really known about what the main character thinks, the sympathy of the viewer, which probably was not the aim of the filmmakers, stays on the side of the Pakistani family, which is cynically exploited and wounded by a young girl. It is all even more striking when we realise that the heroine succeeds not because of her great abilities, but above all thanks to the fact that her new family trusts her so much. Perhaps this is why the director who at some point lost control over film decides to explain to her viewers that they should all be on the Indian side and that the espionage is a heroic act. As a result of this approach, we get a slightly unstable work. The film shows the story about the bitter victory at all costs, which turns out to be nothing but a loss of human values personified by spurious and inhuman characters, and in a moment it completely changes and praises spies for their steadfastness and dedication to the country, because thanks to their courage India won. The most interesting, however, is not the sudden explanation given by the film showing something completely different that the presented story, but the fact that this action had the desired effect. Even the most sensitive about their history Indian nationalists, who were ready for the greatest sacrifices in the name of the mythical queen Padmavati, turn a blind eye to the presentation of India as a wicked and unfair player. The immersion of the story about cruel people who want to win at all costs in a patriotic sauce is enough for viewers to believe in this patriotism, just as the words “smoking kills” is seen as sufficient in films about people who indulge themselves in pleasure of addiction.

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Tatiana Szurlej

Tatiana Szurlej is an Indologist from Poland. She is a film critic and writes for many popular Indian magazines and blogs. She is a PhD from Poland’s Jagiellonian University on the topic The courtesan figure in Indian popular cinema: Tradition, Stereotype, Manipulation. Currently, she teaches at the European Study Institute, Manipal University, Karnataka.

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