Guest Post by KAVITA KRISHNAN
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Raazi, please don’t read this review because it contains spoilers.
Rabindranath Tagore, the composer of the poems that serve as the national anthems of India and Bangladesh, wrote an essay on nationalism in which he asserted, “it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.” In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”
My concern, as I watched Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, was about how the film handles its central tension – between the values of humanity and patriotism.
The plot is, by now, well known: in 1971, with the Bangladesh war impending, the film’s protagonist Sehmat is approached by her father to take his place as an Indian spy who enjoys the confidence of the Pakistani military establishment. She agrees to the unusual arrangement: where she would be married to a Pakistani army officer Iqbal, who is himself the youngest son of a senior Pakistani army officer. The film follows this plotline to depart from the usual jingoism and demonization of Pakistan that usually marks spy thrillers. The Pakistanis in the film are humane, gentle, and upright, and the relationship between Sehmat and her husband Iqbal is tender and loving. Inevitably, then, the viewer finds it unusually difficult to empathise one-sidedly with the protagonist when she murders the family retainer who discovers that she is a spy, and then, to cover up that murder, cold-bloodedly follows orders from the Indian intelligence establishment and murders her brother-in-law who is on the verge of discovering the truth.
The viewer, like the protagonist herself, is torn with feelings of remorse for having caused such pain to her loving in-laws. She has sleepless nights, is haunted by the memory of the family retainer in her dreams, and is racked with sobs over and over at having had to kill her brother-in-law.
This tension is written into the script early on. During training, when Sehmat is taught by the Indian intelligence agent how to use a poison to ‘remove someone from the way’, she asks, ‘Remove someone? You mean kill someone?’ He responds, ‘Any problem?’ and she replies, ‘Shouldn’t I have a problem?’
The film disappoints in its resolution of this tension, because it falls short of courage. Instead of exploring the full moral and ethical implications of espionage and war, it falls back on formula: the reassuring idea that decent people of every country must inevitably jeopardise and betray every loving relationship (father-daughter, husband-wife) to obey the imperatives of espionage and war. Other commentators have already remarked on the fact that the film inverts the patriarchal notion that a woman, once married, takes on the identity and loyalties of her husband’s family: but is her father’s assumption that he has a right to use his daughter as a spy any less patriarchal? Sehmat answers her father’s doubts on this count by asking, why then do we send sons into war? That, indeed, is the profound question. But the film, after teetering on the brink of asking why war and espionage and its terrible human costs are inevitable – draws back from really looking into the abyss and facing the answers. It stops short of questioning the inevitability of wars that require the sacrifice of sons and daughters. It stops just short of asking hard questions about the ethical obligations of soldiers and spies in battle: should soldiers/spies follow orders to endanger or kill civilians and children and console themselves that such collateral damage is inevitable and permissible? This question is a serious one, that the world has made an attempt at answering. The Geneva Convention, for instance, that soldiers have “the right and duty not to obey” any order that involves violation of the Convention, for instance through custodial executions or forced disappearances. The film ‘The Reader’ explores the issue of the moral obligation of guards at a Nazi concentration camp to disobey orders they knew to be immoral. But Raazi turns away from these questions that stare it in the face.
The film has enough of tension between the impulses of humanity and patriotism to be extremely disturbing, however. Sehmat’s anger at her handler for ordering the killing of Iqbal (and the woman the handler thinks is Sehmat) is not assuaged by his answer, that “Many innocents are killed in war. In a war, nothing else matters but the war. Not you, not I, just the war.” She draws away, shaking her head tearfully and saying, “I can’t understand this world of yours – where there is no respect either for relationships or for life. I want to get out of this before I become completely like you. I want to go home.” Later, when she realises she is pregnant, she tells her mother, “I won’t abort Iqbal’s child. I can’t commit another murder.” The film also hints at the lasting mental trauma of the acts of violence and betrayal Sehmat committed: she is shown in an unknown bare room that could possibly be a mental asylum.
Were these acts of violence really needed by India? Did India really need to help ‘break off a piece of Pakistan’ (the phrase used by the Indian military officer in his speech in the opening shots of the film)? Whether we are Pakistani or Indian, must we not ask ourselves why our rulers demand that we sacrifice our humanity at the altar of ‘patriotic’ wars? Must we not seek to redefine love for our country in a way that makes it compatible with peace in the world?
The Pakistani army officers, shown laughing at Bangladesh’s demand for independence from Pakistan, point out that ‘mukti’ in the name Mukti Bahini refers to ‘azaadi’ (freedom). That, again, is a tantalising reminder of the cries of azaadi in Kashmir. In a film which showcases a Kashmiri woman as a postergirl of Indian patriotism, this scene could, possibly, serve to subtly nudge the discerning viewer to ask why India enabled Bangladesh’s azaadi from Pakistan but brands it intolerable even to give a sympathetic ear to the cry for azaadi for Kashmir.
Unfortunately, though, the film resolves this tension with the anodyne conclusion that country is, indeed, greater than the ideals of humanity: Sehmat’s and Iqbal’s son ends up as an officer in the Indian armed forces, and while the forces are encouraged to remember the human costs of war, the implication is that these consequences are tragic but inevitable. “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die” – or kill, as it may be – this is the message the viewer is left with. I suspect, though, that the discomforts the film generates are too strong to be appeased with this message. This is a spy film, a war film, after all, that leaves you recalling the tragedy of the death of the ‘enemy’ soldier Iqbal for hours after you leave the hall. This is a film that has no antagonist, no villain whose downfall we are able to contemplate with satisfaction. You could imagine a ‘Strange Meeting’ between Sehmat and Iqbal, in which the latter tells the former, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” – in the words of the great anti-war poem by Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting.
As I write about Raazi, I recalled an exchange from the last few pages of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose set in an abbey in medieval Europe. Adso, the acolyte, asks Brother William
Isn’t affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?
What follows is this:
William looked at me without betraying any feeling in his features, and he said, “How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?”
I did not understand the meaning of his words. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that there would be no possible and communicable learning any more if the very criterion of truth were lacking, or do you mean you could no longer communicate what you know because others would not allow you to?”
I wonder if, in our country today, questions about the human costs, ethical implications, and necessity of war and espionage can only be raised while genuflecting to the idea that patriotism must trump humanity. If so, we have moved backwards from the times of Rabindranath Tagore, who even as an anti-colonial freedom struggle was raging, could assert that humanity was greater than country – without being subjected to hateful abuse branding him ‘anti-national’.
Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, AIPWA, and Politburo member of the CPI(ML)