Andhadhun, Which Was Almost Excellent, and Raazi, Which Completely Was
Here’s my short take: the first half promised a subversion of the murder mystery (what if you knew who did it, but weren’t able to make it known without putting your own life in danger?) but the second half converts it to a very standard heist-gone-wrong. It was good, but I was so excited at what I thought it was going to be, that I ended up disappointed at what it became.
Akash is a pianist, living life as a blind person so he can better focus on his music. He witnesses the murder of an erstwhile film star by his wife and her lover. Gathering up his courage, he goes to the police station to report it … only to find the police inspector is the wife’s lover. He catches himself in time, but the inspector still becomes suspicious, sniffing around to find proof of Akash’s sight being just fine. However, he and his partner-in-crime (the fabulous Tabu) end having to murder more people to keep their secret … which also Akash witnesses. At this point, I was sure we were going to watch the entire idea of murder mysteries be turned around.
How was Akash going to bring the murderers to justice without revealing his non-blindness and losing all the people in his life that he values--and has been lying to? This would have been an enormously complicated, interesting, and 100% novel question to answer ... especially once the story has already asked it. However, Andhadhun chickens out, choosing instead to of the rest of its time in hijinks and irrelevant storylines that, while entertaining, are meaningless.
Tabu's character, Simi, learns that Akash is not blind after all—and blinds him, thereby bleeding the plot of the kind of perfectly-balanced knife-edge of tension that writers would give their eye-teeth for. Then there are some organ thieves, the police inspector's wife, a doctor of questionable morality, passing back and forth of the upper hand until we end up four years later with Akash in Europe, wondering whether or not he can see again. (The last scene of the movie answers this question, Inception-token-spinning it is not, but I won't reveal it here.)
Raazi, on the other hand, eschews style and suspense for much more satisfying emotional honesty. This is not to say that this film lacks polish, only that it isn't quite as stylish as Andhadhun. Alia Bhatt is the kind of actor that can quickly get typecast: she's petite with a child-like face, and we like to think that behind such a combination always lies an innocent girl-woman. Except, she's not only a brilliant actor, she's chosen her roles cannily. From Shanaya of 'Student of the Year' to Sehmat in 'Raazi', she's played a range of characters not generally seen this early in an actor's career. And as she plays each unexpected character, she overwrites our own prejudices and bigoted expectations even as she portrays her specific characters and their specific plights.
'Raazi' starts with Sehmat's gravely-ill father confessing that all this while he's been spying on Pakistan for India. He's been doing this by maintaining a friendship with a Pakistani general, under the guise of providing him with information on India. He's used this friendship to set up the marriage of Sehmat with Iqbal, the general's younger son, effectively placing her as a spy in the general's very house.
Sehmat, while initially caught off-guard, gets into the swing of things when she starts training with RAW. By the time of the wedding, she is fully committed to the mission. She moves from Kashmir to Pakistan and begins her double life, stealing and sending documents across the border while fulfilling her role as dutiful daughter-in-law and wife. Sehmat is careful and resourceful and is initially successful. But she quickly comes across an obstacle she least expects: she has begun to care for her husband and in-laws. They are unfailingly affectionate towards her while giving her all the space and time a new bride needs to adjust to making her husband's home her own, and Sehmat begins to see just what a disruptive force she is, even though (almost) nobody suspects her to be the cause of the thefts. It all unravels when she is forced to kill first the family's servant and then her brother-in-law to keep her secret. She is found out, and escapes, in a breath-catching climax, but not without hating herself, and her mission, and the system that put her in that position, so thoroughly that she spends the rest of her life all but catatonic.
In a world where nativism is on the rise, in India as well as elsewhere, this clear-eyed look at yet another violent consequence of borders and war comes as a much-needed reality check. Jingoism and hate only last as long as one doesn't see the other as human. Once that reality is inescapable, equally inescapable is the futility of patriotism.
Full points to 'Raazi' also for making a spy film that's also thoughtful about the consequences of war from a perspective that's almost all female. Not only is the main character female, but the majority of her days are occupied in traditional womanly tasks, and it is through these that she finds love and affection for her in-laws, through these that she is reminded of their humanity. Its treatment of this gender role is as clear-eyed and humaneas its treatment of war and spying.
I'd say every jingoist ought to watch this movie, but for ample evidence on Twitter that enough people come away feeling even more patriotic. Perhaps we Indians really haven't learnt how to watch movies that subvert or expectations.