Talking ‘Raazi’ and Alia Bhatt With Filmmaker Meghna Gulzar
As her new film Raazi wins both critical acclaim and commercial success, we spoke to director Meghna Gulzar about her spy thriller, on her own connection with Pakistan, and working with Alia Bhatt. Pssst... we also quizzed her on some bits of Raazi which left us unconvinced. Listen in.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers!
Q: After Filhaal, Just Married and the short Pooranmasi in Dus Kahaniyan - there seems to be a marked change in the way you are telling stories, be it Talvar or Raazi... what changed between 2007 and now or is it that you’ve picked up more interesting stories to tell?
Meghna Gulzar: Definitely, a big part of it has to do with the stories that I am telling, because I am nothing without the stories that I tell. But between between 2007 and 2015, which is Talvar, I think the shift in my execution came with the shift in the genre that I picked.
Talvar was very very gritty, very dark and I had to be unafraid of my visual and pushing the envelope. And the way the script of Talvar was , it kind of laid it out to the audience and left it to the audience, which is what I like to do a lot. I think, partly the shift in genre, from fiction and soft sensitive films to true to life, which is dark and gritty, I think both of these things have played a part in the change of my language, I guess.
Q: What’s really being appreciated about Raazi is how you’ve shown the Pakistani side as more human than anything else. It would’ve been easy to fall into the trap of making them negative, abusive, evil - but they’re just shown as people who are working to save and protect their country like we do ours. Was this pre-decided before you got down to adapt the book or was it something that evolved while you were writing it?
Meghna Gulzar: In the book itself, the characters are such that they are not barbaric, they are not brutes, so in the book itself, that template is there. So, if you want to be true to the book, which is based on true events and you want to be as close to authenticity as possible you need to keep that sanctity intact.
When we were writing it, small things like - Iqbal wanting to listen to jazz, or if his family is having a conversation about teaching India a lesson, he is feeling sensitive because his wife is from India - these were inputs which came in at the script stage, because you are fleshing out your characters at that time, you are seeing them, and my soulmate in writing, Bhavani Iyer, is a very sensitive human being. A lot of Iqbal’s sensitivity comes from her.
Q: You have a connection with Pakistan as your father, Gulzar saab, was born in pre-partitioned India. He still knows people back there. Have you visited Pakistan? Did you bring in some of your experiences with Pakistanis into the film?
Meghna Gulzar: I haven’t been there, I am hoping that even after Raazi I will still be allowed to go there if I want to. I have met people who come across and I have spoken to people over the phone. It’s not like Pakistanis have an extra hand or 3 eyes or something. We’re the same, and there is so much warmth between us. The nationality comes into play when politics comes into play, at a people to people level we do not have these divides between us.
Q: There was news that Raazi has been banned in Pakistan, was that disappointing?
Meghna Gulzar: It was not banned in Pakistan, that’s a false story. The application to screen Raazi in Pakistan was never made, till two days ago. The screening happened yesterday. We have our fingers crossed.
Q: But have you been reading the kind of positive responses that Raazi is getting from Pakistanis who’ve seen the film?
Meghna Gulzar: Yes and I am overwhelmed and I am so grateful that they gave it that chance. In spite of what ever their pre-conceived notions may be or what ever the trailer may have lead them to think, they still stepped up, went and saw the film, gave the film the chance and then were pleasantly satisfied with what the film was doing. I am most grateful for that.
Q: Was Alia Bhatt the first choice to play Sehmat in Raazi or were there others who you had in mind for the role?
Meghna Gulzar: She was the only choice. Even before I read the entire book, as soon as I heard the story, Alia just popped into my head. I can’t see anybody else as her. I couldn’t then, I can’t now.
Q: Alia of course has got a lot of rave reviews for her performance in Raazi, some critics have gone on to call this her career best yet. Having done a film with her, what do you think is the most remarkable aspect of Alia as an actor?
Meghna Gulzar: Alia gets the layers of the character. In Raazi, within the same scene, she needs to go from being the daughter-in-law who is giving water to her father-in-law who is coughing, and yet at the same time she is a spy who is looking at the file on his desk. It’s not easy. Particularly in a film where the tone is what it is, to keep it at that subliminal level and not overplay and not even underplay ki kisi ko pata bhi na chalega ki aapne ek look diya tha udhar, that tightrope walk is amazing. She does her prep and she does her hard work but she acts from instinct.
Q: What were the significant changes that you made while adapting the book Calling Sehmat into the screenplay for Raazi?
Meghna Gulzar: I worked on the older edition of Calling Sehmat, I don’t know what changes have come in the new edition. I have not read the new edition. I worked on the older edition, which was given to me by the author. The most significant changes in the film have been towards the third act, where we depart from the book and in Iqbal’s characterisation. Apart from that we’ve stayed pretty faithful.
My father is a writer and I know how it feels to maintain the sanctity of a writer’s work. I would never mess with that sanctity. For me an adaptation is an extension of the written word, it is not countering it, it’s not distorting it and that’s how I approached the book.
Q: Ok, so we all loved Raazi at The Quint, but there are a few scenes which we felt were unconvincing, I’ve picked a couple of them to quiz you about. First, when the servant of the house, Abdul, realises that Sehmat is a spy, why would he not first raise an alarm in the house and instead run out of the house?
Meghna Gulzar: The entire household is out, who will he raise the alarm to?
Q: The elder daughter-in-law is at home...
Meghna Gulzar: But this is 1971, an army household in Pakistan. Do you think he would go to the head of the household or would he go to the daughter-in-law? He would go to the army headquarter, where his saheb has gone.
Q: Ok, the second scene is...
Meghna Gulzar: (Laughs) You tell me if my answers convince also na, I want to know...
Q: (Laughing) Well, ok.... (I think I will buy this one) the second one is, how can Iqbal be fully convinced that Sehmat is a spy only on the basis of finding a part of her ghungroo in Abdul’s room? It could have fallen when she visited the room before with his elder brother, Mehboob, or be swept in from some other room. I felt that was an important plot point in the film which was weak.
Meghna Gulzar: It doesn’t matter when the ghungroo fell, the ghungroo still belongs to Sehmat and the fact that Mehboob has scanned the entire room and there was nothing found and then suddenly when the next time the room is searched, you have all this Morse equipment and bugs found over there. It doesn’t matter when the ghungroo fell, the ghungroo is hers. Convinced? No?
You have to do some things for cinema also, no? Also, he finds the ghungroo, he doesn’t go running out of the house to army headquarters. He goes and breaks down, he is processing it. By which time, when he opens the door, the living exhibit is standing in front of him, pointing a gun at him. We’ve thought about it, not written anything that came to our minds.
Q: Your next film is an ambitious one one the life of Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, what can you tell us about it? Will it be like a biopic?
Meghna Gulzar: Biopic, I don’t know because I am not looking at telling the story chronologically. My only idea over here is that I want people to know about this man. He is probably the highest decorated soldier in our army and has a very big part to play in our history and the lines drawn on our sub-continent. We need to know because he is an idol everyone should know. I just want to tell his story and tell it well.
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