Patriarch(s) and Nation(s): Wilful Erasures of Female Selves

Tu hi meri manzil hai, pehchan tujhi se/ Pohonchun main jahan bhi, meri buniyaad rahe tu” (You’re my destination, you give me my identity/ Wherever I go, you remain my foundation).  Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, the story of a female spy, presents Alia Bhatt’s character as “A Daughter. A Wife. A Spy”. The director has managed to make an excitingly paced spy thriller with the necessary dose of drama yet she chooses to highlight her protagonist’s roles as daughter and wife, first and foremost. Along with representing the human tragedy of war, Raazi also reveals the patriarchal nature of nationalism that expects its women to submerge themselves under domestic roles even when they are working as soldiers of the nation.

The film begins in contemporary times with a defence officer narrating tales of heroism from the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, especially emphasizing the role of those who surreptitiously gathered information for the nation despite putting themselves in danger. With this we are taken back to the story of Sehmat, a twenty year old Delhi University graduate, who is suddenly informed of her father’s impending death as well as the life-altering decision he has made for her. It is quite interesting that Meghna Gulzar chose to name her film ‘Raazi’, a near synonym for the ‘Sehmat’. Both the words mean ‘in agreement’; and that is where Gulzar’s female protagonist’s journey begins, in agreement with what her father, Hidayat (meaning: caution or advice), chooses for her. One isn’t given too many details of her life prior to this except that she has been a protected, sensitive child who hasn’t had to deal with life’s struggles because her family provided for her. Freedom of choosing or defining herself has not been a concern for her at all. This strain continues throughout the movie with different people embodying the role of decision-makers for her. She executes extremely important decisions but she almost never takes them independently. As a female foot-soldier, her identity is always suspended under what the other commands. The space of the other is occupied by different embodiments, father, senior, husband, and the nation, but her response to it is nearly automatic, one of self-effacement.

In the early scenes of the film, the biological father and the nation collapse into each other to prepare a daughter for a sacrifice. Khalid Mir, Sehmat’s eventual trainer, questions Hidayat if he has asked his daughter or even told her about the direction into which her life is being steered. Hidayat’s response is quite clear. He believes that she would agree with him because that is exactly what he had done as a son. In the face of family and nation’s continuing legacies, individuals are presented as minor players who are bound to take these forward rather than changing them with any personal/selfish dreams. Hidayat tells Sehmat when she asks him a similar question, ‘jo hamaare waalid ne sikhaya, humne wohi kiya. Watan ke aage kuch nahi, khud bhi nahi’ (I did whatever my father taught me. Nothing is greater than the nation, not even one’s self). The girl, in that tender moment of decision-making, repeats the same, ‘mere waalid ne bhi mujhe yehi sikhaya hai’ (my father has taught me the same) and immerses herself in the service of the nation and the men in her life.

While it is heartening that for once a daughter is chosen to take the family legacy forward, it is equally disheartening to witness the lack of choice offered to her. The film dabbles with the element of choice a little, providing moments where Sehmat can possibly decide the course of her life, the larger paradigm within which she operates negates that possibility. Hidayat is seen telling Mir, ‘bataaunga main aur sikhaayenge aap’ (I would tell her and you would teach her). The narrative of patriarchal inheritance delimits the choices she can make; she can only agree, be raazi! Similar circumstances prevail inside her marital home. Despite playing the role of a spy to perfection, she begins succumbing to the demands of love and domesticity.

Earlier, it was quite evident during the training scenes that she made the choice of becoming a spy without realizing what it entails for her. Even as Mir starts her training, he takes over the role of the more disciplinarian, strict patriarch who is mean to her for her own good. By the end of the training, Sehmat is able to tackle him (physically, quite literally), but her self-empowerment has already been co-opted within the patriarchal nationalism of the forces. She tentatively asks, ‘aapko lagta hai main yeh kar paaungi’ (do you think I would be able to do it?), and seeks approval from the father-like figure. His affirmative answer seems like the only source of confidence she has at that moment. At her marital home, the brutal spy is also shown to be a caring wife, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. The biggest complexity in her life is that of choosing between love for the husband (Iqbal) and love for the nation (the one she belongs to and not the one she resides in) but it is too late for her to take that call. Her personal identity is so deeply submerged under the garb of a spy that she defends the injustice done to her by repeating her father’s statement, watan ke aage kuch nahi, khud bhi nahi. She erases her ‘self’ to represent that which lies outside of her. The courage of holding a gun at her husband is more borrowed than self-cultivated and she is shown to repent that decision for the rest of the narrative.

Both the songs that formulate the background of the narrative also point the negation of the selfhood required of her. While ‘Ae Watan’ (O Nation) presents the nominal value of the individual in front of the nation, ‘Raazi’ subtly shows the manner in which one has to erase one’s identity in order to serve the nation (‘lagan mein jaan jaaye, wohi toh sarhad hai’) (Even if you lose yourself in dedication to the nation, that is the limit of your sacrifice). The last few minutes of the film take this erasure of individual identity to its utmost level. After having murdered and nearly destroyed her husband’s entire family, Sehmat is waiting to be rescued by Mir. It is only a last moment decision on her part that saves her life while she witnesses another woman becoming a victim of Mir’s plan B. As she challenges what she considers unjust, she is told ‘Jang mein sirf jang jaayaz hai’ (In a battle, only the battle is justified). She is, once again, compelled to live by that decision because she had already given up the possibilities of choosing an independent identity. As the film nears its end, Sehmat is neither a spy, nor a daughter, nor a wife; she is a shadow of the young girl whose selfhood had been sacrificed at the altar of nationhood.

The film doesn’t end with Sehmat’s return to safety though. She comes back to her mother only to realize that she is pregnant with Iqbal’s child. Here she chooses to keep the child. As the film comes back to the present day, the point at which it had started, we see a young officer standing amidst a slew of other officers listening to the stories of this young woman’s bravery. It is indicated that this might be Sehmat’s son as the camera pans to a dilapidated house and an older woman sitting inside it. The narrative of the family’s legacy of an individual’s dispensability is disturbingly shown to continue and Sehmat sits like an embodiment of ‘no (wo)man’s land’, because all forms of identity and selfhood had been taken away from her.