Cast: Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat, Rajit Kapur, Arif Zakaria, Shishir Sharma, Ashwath Bhatt, Amruta Khanvilkar, Soni Razdan
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Rating: * * *
This film is an espionage drama, not thriller – as it’s main focus is to unravel the emotional journey of a 20 year old young woman, Sehmat (Alia Bhatt), a rather raw, semi-trained recruit for the Indian side wanting to be prepared in case of any unexpected trouble from Pakistan during the unfortunate events that eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh. Part adaptation of Harinder Sikka’s novel ‘Calling Sehmat,’ Meghna Gulzar’s film is an unqualified and highly romanticised account of what actually transpired in the real world during those troubled times. It may have been inspired by real events but the presentation here is so melodramatic and overtly emotional that it all seems rather unreal.
Meghna Gulzar, as her name suggests, marries her own inimical woman’s gaze with her father’s lyricism, thus creating an amalgam that is pure heart. Her representation of Sehmat’s escapades as an Indian undercover spy married into a Pakistani household is an instrument of contrivance though. Hidayat (Rajit Kapur) is basically a feeder who passes on information to his Pakistani friend Brigadier Syed (Shishir Sharma) about the liberation movement (supported by India) emerging from Pakistan occupied Bengal. So it’s questionable why he sent his only child, a young girl of 20, to be used as a spy by the Government agency on the Indian side.
Quasi-patriotic murmurings and Hidayat’s terminal illness don’t provide a firm logic for such a dubious sacrifice. And all the realms of newsprint conspiring to validate such an act by calling it a righteous one is no justification either. Sehmat, whose only distinction is a memory for numbers, unsteady in the art of spying, does well enough to pass on highly classified information across to the Indian side without her husband Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) and in-laws getting a whiff of her activities. They are conveniently never in the frame when she goes about her business. And that’s a major directorial flaw that kills off all the tension.
Meghna’s attempt here is to render an emotional wallop rather than a thrilling, exciting one. And in that, she is more than successful. Her choice of dainty, but spunky Alia Bhatt to interpret Sehmat is well in keeping with her own sensibilities as a director. So if Sehmat is unsure and unsteady in her espionage activities it’s the writers (Meghna and Bhavani Iyer) interpretation at work. While Sehmat’s break-down at the end may be in keeping with Meghna Gulzar’s and Alia Bhatt’s interpretation of a young woman’s fragile mindset, it doesn’t quite work (in the espionage context) when preceded by premeditated murders of family members – even though qualified by jingoistic patriotic rationalisation.
There is a lyrical movement and flow to the narration that cannot be denied. Meghna Gulzar has definitely grown more assured as a director. Her takes resonate a simple-mindedness that is tonally beguiling. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music is entreating while Gulzar’s lyrics pours on the sentiment with an effusive timbre. ‘Dilbaro’ is memorable and ‘Aye Watan’ inspires love for the motherland (whichever country you may belong to).
The enchanting camerawork by Jay I Patel and fluid editing by Nitin Baid add weight to the emotional impact. Despite the flawed characterisation and contrived plotting, the narrative holds your attention long enough to be memorable. And that’s entirely because the cast and director were on the same page. There’s no denying Alia Bhatt’s on-screen magnetism. From the moment she steps into the frame, right up to the end credits, she holds you in thrall.