Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat In Raazi Is No Mata Hari, But A Far Cry From Stereotypical Filmy Female Spies
Unlike most Bollywood spy films, in Raazi, Sehmat doesn't need a male super spy to save her, and bail her out when things go south.
If Nirupa Roy, the iconic Bollywood mother, would have known Sehmat, she would have bestowed the Bahu of Year Award title upon her. Even Shashikala and Lalita Pawar could not have denied Sehmat’s bahu-like qualities.
Sehmat, played by Alia Bhatt, is the typical aadarsh bahu that every Bollywood mother-in-law has always dreamed of. Her anklets tinkle as she walks demurely, she wears pastels throughout. She changes flowers in vases, hands her husband his handkerchief and wallet as he steps out for work, and serves food at the dinner table, as the male members of the house sit down to eat.
But Sehmat is anything but an aadarsh bahu. Living in the house of three high profile Pakistani Army personnel, Sehmat is an Indian spy, married to one of them so that she can easily acquire Intel and pass it to the Indian intelligence agency. Thus proceeds the story of Meghna Gulzar’s latest film, Raazi.
For starters, Bhatt’s Sehmat, as the docile bahu, is a far cry from most of the contemporary onscreen female spies that we have seen so far. Sehmat cannot kick butts, and take on an army of men. No, she isn’t Katrina Kaif’s Zoya from Ek Tha Tiger who can look that sexy while simultaneously punching a bunch of people.
Unlike most Bollywood spy films, in Raazi, Sehmat also doesn’t need a male super spy to save her, and bail her out when things go south, like Sonakshi Sinha’s Kamaljeet Kaur needed John Abraham’s Yashwardhan in Force 2 or Taapsee Pannu’s Shabana needed Akshay Kumar’s Ajay Singh Rajput in Naam Shabana. Neither does Sehmat fall for another spy (thank god!) like Kareena Kapoor’s Ruby in Agent Vinod.
In fact, Raazi moves away from all the clichés about female spies that have been propelled by Hollywood for years and have seeped into Bollywood films effortlessly. In popular culture, we always think of female spies as femme fatale, with dashboard flat tummies suited for bikini ads, and Catwoman walks; women who use their sexiness to entice high-ranking enemies and make them divulge their secrets.
They are portrayed as intelligent individuals who are often trained assassins and mostly emotionless (who inevitably develop emotions for some hot dude in the film) and sometimes even with no backstory. These women are contrived to inspire awe in the audience and are often half fleshed characters used as a bait by the villains to lure the hero (who is obviously a guy. Duh!). Take any film, Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) in Mr and Mrs Smith, Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) in Inglourious Basterds, or Bond girl Giacinta Johnson (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day, and you will see these women characters seamlessly fit into the clichéd notions of female spies.
As spies, you would expect these women to blend in, so that they raise little or no suspicion at all and yet barring few films, every female spy character in movies looks like aspiring Victoria’s Secret model. To be fair, Mata Hari ruined it for all the female spies and their onscreen counterparts. Before her, hardly in the history of the world, had we ever seen a woman, who with her sensuous, exotic way could get any information out of a man. While it is still unclear whose side she was really on, she is by far the most glamorous female spy that ever existed. And when the gorgeous Greta Garbo played her with oozing sex appeal onscreen, she almost set a precedence for all onscreen female spies to look hot.
In this respect, Bhatt’s Sehmat is no different. Although she doesn’t quite fit in the definition of hot, she is pretty as a young gazelle and looks gullible too. That, she uses to her full advantage– not just to manipulate the characters in the film, but also the audiences. With her Bambi eyes, as she cries in practically every shot, Bhatt easily draws in a lot of sympathy, despite doing horrendous things onscreen.
Bhatt, in fact, is the best and the worst thing that has happened to Raazi. On one hand, she plays Sehmat with an earnestness and delicacy that makes the character a living breathing person and yet, she emotes so much in almost every scene, that her performance comes off at times as too conscious, as if she is trying too hard to prove her worth as a heroine. Unlike most spies, Sehmat is a vulnerable and emotional individual, and Bhatt’s only device to show that onscreen is to cry her guts out. After a point, it feels a little overwhelming, as she wails like an infant, you almost tend to zone out of it all, instead of getting more invested in her.
Yet, Bhatt’s Sehmat is by far one of the most real spy characters one would meet in Hindi cinema. The reason for it may be the fact that her character is based on a real person and Gulzar, who is a very talented filmmaker, never veers towards making Sehmat filmy or a Bollywood stereotype of a spy. Sehmat undergoes training and a rigorous one too. Yet, by the end of it, when she chases down a man in the street, like any other normal person, she too pants and sweats. She learns combat, and yet she never morphs into a master assassin; she learns to use a pistol and yet she struggles with the consequences of its use. When she murders someone for the first time, she cannot believe that she has done it and as an audience who have seen her saving a squirrel in the first part of the film, neither can you. She does pass the information to her bosses, and yet she falls in love with the Pakistani man she has married, who happens to be a kind, sensitive person. She is a spy no doubt, and a good one at that, but what makes her real is the fact that she is no less human for it.