Espionage movies are known for slick action, intrigue, complex political setups and suspense-filled moments set against the backdrop of a looming doomsday scenario. Yet, if not done right, can appear long-drawn, winding, and honestly just a plain try-hard film. We've had some brilliant examples in the genre too. Still, Bollywood faces a dearth of good tales of espionage.
When we are talking of moves on espionage, unsung heroes who lurk amongst us as unrecognisable ninjas, how many of these characters are women? Perhaps, there's a reason why none of these spies appear in our minds as women and appears rather as good-looking heroes in black suits, with a James Bond-esque stature. Not because not enough women are spies, their stories have just not been told to us...yet.
Raazi: India's best true example yet of spy movies
We've seen some Indian spy movies- Baby, Agent Vinod, Ek Tha Tiger, Bang Bang? For some reason, Indian spies are always presented as beefed-up superheroes, who perform high-octane stunts and possess some form of invincibility. Which is thrilling, we won't lie. But we rarely get spies with substance.
When Raazi was yet to be released in 2018, the doubt was how would Alia Bhatt carry the weight of her film on her shoulders? Would it pull an audience? Would a female spy be as exciting? You know those mildly sexist questions that always seem to come instantly when discussing films made by women, telling the stories of women. We want to find "commercial" and "technical" reasons why they won't work, rather than addressing the inherent prejudice we mask through half-baked statistics.
Interestingly, probably the real woman, Sehmat on whose life this film is based, faced the same kind of redundant questions back then when she set out on her mission. The story of a naive girl with a huge task of having to live a dual life always looking over her shoulder. Moreover, the story of a girl signed up for the dangerous mission by her own father's sense of duty towards the nation could have been told with a lot of weeping. It could have been told with that stark male gaze as well, or trying to beef up Sehmat to make her seem more for the lack of a better word, "masculine". The way we do with our male spy counterparts in films.
One advantage of Meghna Gulzar being the director and writer is that it does away with the projected image of the spy, it also shows "enemies" as humans rather than heartless threats. There are feelings at play here. There are relationships and close bonds formed as Sehmat lays an intricate web of lies, a web she gets mercilessly tangled in.
How many espionage films show the impact of the life they lead on a spy's mind, not in passing. At the end of the day, the spies deployed are humans who are made of flesh and blood, not nerves of steel even if they look and behave a certain way. That's why Raazi works not only as a story of female spies, it works as an espionage film and is a better telling of the lives of spies at large. What serves to set it in stone, is that it is based on a real-life example, we know it's a fictionalised version, but it works.
How Raazi paved the way for tales of women espionage
It's a known formula when a movie works, and filmmakers realise there's an audience for it more movies in that genre will be made. If a movie crashes and burns rest assured stories in that brand will not be made for many years after. It's a blessing that Raazi was not simply a piece of art, it was also a hit with the audience. For films in this day and age, the popularity of a film becomes an important aspect in establishing credibility.
We have only seen women as spies as part of a film helmed by men, or a supporting character. The problem with this is, women as Raazi taught us, make great spies. Perhaps it's because the sexism works for them in those rare instances, people just don't see women as that much of a threat.
Sehmat's character's resolve, her hesitance and her wide-eyed nature make her pass off as a spy. The credit here goes to Alia Bhatt's acting in making Sehmat human, not impassive or a machine and worse yet, a damsel in distress.
Vicky Kaushal's character Iqbal is so refreshing to see, that your heart goes out to him at the end of the film. Kudos to Meghna Gulzar for not turning him into an oppressor which would have been so easy to do. There are no enemies here, even though there is an underlying theme of war.
That's skilful filmmaking at its best. So Raazi deserves to be celebrated not just as a tale of female espionage, but as a breakthrough for espionage tales in general. Something for all filmmakers in the genre to learn from, and actors too. This rendition may not be perfect, but it's the best we have right now. Raazi moved out of binaries and by doing that, it proved Bollywood can move out of them too. So what's still holding them back?
We hope we'll get better movies on espionage and if not, keep rewatching Raazi on OTT platforms till filmmakers succeed.