It would not be an understatement to say that Alia Bhatt is one of the most interesting actors in Bollywood today. In the last six years since she made her debut, she has proven that when thrown a challenge, she has always come back a notch higher.
In Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, she will be seen playing one of the most complex characters in her short career. Let’s try and decipher who Sehmat Khan of Raazi could have been - a young Kashmiri Muslim girl, daughter of a businessman, who agrees to fulfil her father’s wish to be an undercover Indian agent in Pakistan. For the purpose, she is married off to a serving officer of the Pakistani army. All this unfolds in the year 1971 when India and Pakistan went to war. In this scenario, this young girl’s bravado and unflinching patriotism shines through. Reportedly, a vital clue that she passed on helped the Indian Navy save INS Viraat from being destroyed. Her story didn’t stop there - Sehmat, reportedly, returned to India, pregnant with the child of her Pakistani husband and raised him to join the Indian army.
Given the current unrest in Kashmir, it can be a challenge to imagine that such a woman could have even existed. In a world of shrill nationalism, this woman’s quiet courage is an example for all of us to emulate. Joh Karte Hain, Woh Bolte Nahin - might as well have been her motto.
For Alia Bhatt to essay a woman like Sehmat will be, arguably, a difficult task. Unlike her characters in Highway (2014) and Udta Punjab (2016), this is a political drama. It has layers of history in its underbelly even if it is not referred to directly - there’s the Kashmiri turmoil, Pakistani desire to complete the unfinished task of partition and, importantly, India’s resolve to preserve her thousands of years of history and collective inheritance. There will be references to the run up to 1971 Indo-Pak war, of course.
Just how would Sehmat compare with Highway’s Veera Tripathi and Udta Punjab’s Pinki/Mary Jane?
In Highway, her character is caught in a milieu which requires her to tackle the fear of being kidnapped, being away from familiar surroundings of home and family and being sexually abused. She has to contend with physical hardships - characters traverse many north Indian states in a truck. She also has to explore a newfound sense of freedom, conquer her inner demons (of having being molested as a child) and finally deal with love for a man who is her polar opposite (there’s also the Stockholm syndrome angle).
In Udta Punjab, she plays a young labourer who becomes a drug addict and later is sexually and physically abused. Alia’s strong point as an actor is her instinctive response to a situation and her ability to expose her vulnerability. No wonder, her characters look so real. What one was apprehensive was her ability to understand the mind of an addict and get into the skin of the character who is from Bihar - diction, perspective on life, world view, regional traits, etc.
Dear Zindagi was perhaps the closest she could come to portraying characters she might have seen growing up - that gnawing emptiness in many youngsters today, otherwise born to privilege. She could project depression, lack of focus, tackling societal prejudice and her connect with her doctor with effortless ease.
What’s remarkable about Alia is her ability to inhabit the world of grey with just as much ease as she does in the black-and-white world of Bollywood.
Watching her tease Badrinath, her suitor, in Badrinath Ki Dulhania about his command over simple interest and compound interest was charming. Seeing her pretty and petite frame dance to the beats of Radha on the Dance Floor (Student of the Year) was a feast for the eyes. Her uninhibited onscreen romance with her co-stars - Arjun Kapoor and Varun Dhawn - is simply delightful. What’s more, the actor is good dancer too. Few remakes look as good as the original. However, Tamma Tamma Loge from Badrinath Ki Dulhania seemed just as interesting as the Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt original.
Raazi is based on Harinder S Sikka’s book called Calling Sehmat, which is a fictionalised account of a Kashmiri Indian spy. Sikka, reportedly, changed the name of his protagonist to protect her and her family from danger. The lady in question is dead now. With no real reference points to seek guidance from, Alia will have to depend on Sikka’s narration, Meghna Gulzar’s vision and her own imagination to bring to life this mysterious character from the pages of modern Indian espionage history.
Author tweets @mniveditatweets