In The Godfather II, when Michael Corleone kills his older, somewhat dimwitted brother Fredo, it marks his transition to and acceptance of something the audience already knows. Michael is a gangster, and no veneer of sophistication or lies about “doing it for the family” can erase the stain of that murder from his conscience. The story of Michael’s rise is also the story of his fall, of the ideal and idealist son we see at the beginning of the first Godfather. Like any murderer who isn’t a psychopath, and unlike the perpetrators of “crimes of passion”, he uses the oldest excuse for breaking the code ordinary people live by — family and loyalty.
On the other hand, when Radha kills Birju she is Mother India. A dacoit, a thief, a murderer — even though he is all these things because of a society that is deeply rapacious, violent and hierarchical — Birju’s murder is an act of great courage because the nation is placed above family, Bharat Mata trumps even the ties of mamta. Nargis’s iconic character has become almost a cliché, the ultimate symbol for nationalistic nobility where nothing matters in the face of patriotism, the greater good of an emerging country. Her act of murder is so heroic precisely because family is sacrificed for the nation.
Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi is not worth every naya paisa charged at the box office merely because of the fine performances by Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal and the host of other actors that make the film. Or the masterful subtlety of the way the camera stalks the protagonist and breathes with her. Or even the moments of tension and deception in what is otherwise a deeply functional South Asian household. Its brilliance, at its core, lies in the one thing it makes clear: In the larger scheme of things, there is no difference between Michael Corleone and Radha. That, as Terry Pratchett wrote in I Shall Wear Midnight, “evil begins when we begin to treat people as things”.
Sehmat (Bhatt) follows the family tradition (her father and grandfather worked for the IB) and “agrees” to become a spy, marrying into a Pakistani Brigadier’s family at a time when all-out war between India and Pakistan over the imminent creation of Bangladesh is inevitable. The idea of volunteerism, of Sehmat being Raazi (both words are nearly synonyms) is at the core of her heroism. She volunteers her body, safety, life for the “nation” in a time of impending war, sacrifices the promise of a good life to literally “go to Pakistan”.
By making her protagonist a patriot, and her trainer and handler (Khalid Mir played by Jaideep Ahlawat) even more so, Gulzar has managed to do what seemed impossible after Padmaavat: She has made sure that the new guardians of the nation-state see a great hero in Sehmat while humanists of every stripe are left confused.
The villain, at first glance, could be Khalid Mir, the ruthless intelligence agent willing to do what many a handler has had to in the realistic spy novels of John Le Carre and even Graham Greene — eliminate an agent rather than let him/her fall into enemy hands. But as the great spies have taught us, an agent’s greatest ability is to rise above the mundane ethical boundaries that the rest of us put up, and live with the consequences of his actions. And then do the unthinkable again.
Is the antagonist in Raazi, then, more obvious? The big bad is right there, after all. Much of the film takes place in Pakistan, among that country’s army leadership, in a family of officers all of whom are anti-India and seem to relish the thought of beating their neighbour in a war and quelling the “traitors” in what was then East Pakistan. They even have stickers with anti-India slogans on their cars. This is clearly an image of Pakistanis that suits a certain narrative, one that is increasingly dominant to the point of being hegemonic in New India. But Gulzar threads the needle between jingoism and empathy with the subtlety of a true craftsman. Sehmat’s husband is understanding, and respects her patriotism as much as he holds on to his. He is not the lustful, evil Muslim male of Bhansali’s imagination or the Pakistan-zealot in the Gadar mould. He is the epitome of the understanding paramour in an arranged marriage setting, more a character out of Satyajit Ray than a villain in an India-Pakistan film. In fact, all of Sehmat’s in-laws treat her with love, respect and trust. Their nationality, it is made clear, in no way hinders them being decent human beings.
Sehmat is the one who lies and cheats, who has mortgaged every relationship to an imagined idea of patriotism. Her actions (no spoilers, don’t worry) place her in the league of Michael Corleone. And Mother India. In the end, though, she is not just a mindless soldier in a conflict that predates her, and she is in no position to accept the laurels of her victory. The cost of being a hero is to have lost everything, and betrayal, no matter for how great a cause, has taken its toll.
The real villain in Raazi is an idea that so many of us have forgotten to see as dangerous in recent years. There are still conversations about the number of lives lost, and destroyed, over the years in the name of religion or empire or colonialism or even communism. Yet, since the Treaty of Westphalia, perhaps the “greatest” cause — the one to which generations have been sacrificed — has been the nation-state. In the time after the Second World War, in the horrific afterglow of concentration camps and Hiroshima, of Partitions in Palestine and India, much of the world had grown weary of the chest-thumping idea of “my country right or wrong”. But as generations pass and memories fade to become history, the idea of a country is divorced from the diversity of its people, values become hostage to mass emotional frenzy.
The lesson in Raazi — for those willing to see it — is that any idea that makes you treat people as a means, as tools to be used and expended, is one that needs to be interrogated. Sehmat’s sacrifice is as great as Radha’s. And sometimes, it might just be better to be anti-national than to volunteer for an idea that has never lived up to its promise.