Meghna Gulzar has time and again picked stories which are inspired by true events and that real life authenticity resonates in her films too. Her last movie Talvar had left a deep impact on the audience showing them the other side of the Arushi Talwar murder case. Now, her latest project Raazi looks no different. The film, which has actors Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal as the main leads, is an adaptation of Harinder Sikka’s novel Calling Sehmat. It narrates the story of an Indian spy married to a Pakistani military officer during the1971 India-Pakistan War.
In an exclusive interview with indianexpress.com, Meghna talks about the challenges of adapting a book and how she gravitated towards making films based on true stories.
This is the first time you’ve adapted a book. How did you approach the script?
The attempt should always be to take the written word forward, which is what I did with my approach to the film. Now how this film happened is another story altogether. The strange thing is that the book and the story came to me from two different places. The talks between Harinder Sikka and the production house were not coming through. While I was developing my own scripts, the script came my way again. Somehow something connected that there is a reason that the story is coming to me and I should take it up. I met Harinder Sikka and we had a conversation. He said, ‘Look, I don’t know who will produce the film, but I am very sure that I want only you to direct it.’ And I told him that if he trusts me so much with the material then he should let me develop it and colour a cinematic story out of the book and take it to the studio. So I did that and took it to Junglee Pictures and Priti Sahani, as she was the first one to tell me about this book. So taking the script to her was morally the right thing to do.
When you read the book, the most powerful thread in the book is the journey of this girl, Sehmat. Where a decision is made for her, by her parents and that she is married off into a Pakistani military family and sent across the border where she becomes the eyes and ears of India. Apart from that, there is her backstory, her parents’ backstory and whatever happened after that like an epilogue. But when you have to make a film, you have two and a half hours and to tell your story in the best way, you have to focus on the most important part of the story to be able to do justice to it and tell it in the best way possible. That was my only guiding principle in pulling out this main thread from the book.
Why are you attracted to dark narratives like Raazi and Talvar?
Not dark, but the true life genre is what I am gravitating towards. It is not a conscious thing. It is just that stories from there are far more compelling. As a creative person, I want to keep shifting gears so that I don’t stagnate. So it is important to touch different genres and different colours in the palette.
“Ae Watan Mere Watan” is quite an impactful patriotic song, something we have seen in an Indian film after a long time. Tell us more.
The songs are entrenched in the film. We’ve not made songs to fill up an album. These are made for the film and they are connected to the film. There is a situation in the film where Sehmat’s character teaches children at an army school a song for their annual day and what I wanted was duality in the song. When she is teaching “Ae Watan Mere Watan” to them, the children are referring to Pakistan and she refers to India. So it just grew from there. The beauty of a patriotic song is that anyone can sing it for their country. That’s what makes a patriotic song truly universal.
Another layer to this song is through two lines – “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri, zindagi shamma ki surat ho khudaya meri”. This is a prayer which is sung in the schools of Pakistan even today. My father (Gulzar) used to sing it as a child at his school in pre-Partition days.
Is there any fear that the way you see the film would be different from how the audience would perceive it, given that the Indo-Pakistan relationship is so delicate?
I wouldn’t say fear because if there was fear, I wouldn’t venture forward and make it in the first place. But yes, that awareness was there that this is sensitive territory that we are treading, but then so was Talvar. It is about your own intent of picking the subject. If that intent is pure and if your integrity is in the right place, it will show in the film. It will subliminally seep in the way you execute the film. And the audiences will get that. More than anything, I believe the audience is far more aware than we give them credit for. That has been my biggest learning as a filmmaker since Talvar.
Any plans of releasing the film in Pakistan?
I know it is releasing worldwide. We hope that it releases in Pakistan. As of now, I don’t think there are any plans. But, something inside me tells me that when the film releases you’ll realise that it’s looking at the Indo-Pakistan dynamic very differently and that there is nothing in it that it should not release in Pakistan. However, whether the film will release in Pakistan or not should not be relevant only because it is Raazi, a film on Indo-Pakistan subject. Our films are anyway not releasing in Pakistan, which is a tragedy in itself. Cultural exchanges should not be driven by politics.