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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes arranged marriages cement alliances, and sometimes..."
4 stars

"Raazi" is something of a weird one for people used to Hollywood spy movies, which tend to either be bigger or more morally ambiguous; this opens, at least, with some unequivocal flag-waving, and doesn't spare the talk of duty and straightforward setting of goals early on. For someone with an arm's-length interest in the India-Pakistan conflict, it can play somewhat dry. Of course, espionage is a dry business on the planning side, and writer/director Meghna Gulzar does all right when things get dangerous on the ground.

It's arguably always dangerous on the ground near the Indo-Pakistani border, but in 1971, war is neither far behind nor far off. Pakistani Brigadier Parvez Syed (Shishir Sharma) regularly receives intelligence from Hindu merchant Hidayat Khan (Rajit Kapoor), unaware that Khan is a double agent working for the Indian Intelligence Bureau. Khan knows he is onto something big, but also knows that his cancer will kill him before he can find out what, so he proposes something radical: Arranging a marriage between his daughter Sehmat (Alia Bhatt) and Syed's youngest son Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal). Sehmat is a clumsy university student, but as patriotic as her father, and after a few weeks of training with handler Khalid Mir (Jaideep Ahlawat), she's ready to discover that Iqbal is actually quite sweet and respectful, and the person she has to keep her eye on is Abdul (Arif Zakaria), who has been serving this military family since before the Partition.

Spying can be dull-but-dangerous in real life and it can be even easier to fall victim to cliché on-screen, especially when the filmmakers have a fair amount of running time and limited quantities of ambiguity, as is the case here. So, not only is there a bookend with a stirring speech about honoring the bravery of the nation's spies along with its soldiers on the deck of an aircraft carrier, but a fair amount of time establishing the Khan family's history in that business before Gulzar and company give the audience the inevitable training section of the film, with Jaideep Ahlawat flashing a scarred, stone face to intimidate Sehmat until it's time to see her get better at various things via the training montage. It doesn't help that this section and the wedding are where the songs show up - even Indian movies without lip-syncing and dancing are expected to sell soundtrack albums - and going by the subtitles, they are rote recitations of of what's happening on-screen, although those translations could very well be simplified to give the non-Hindi-speaking audience the gist

The first half's simplicity becomes more useful as the film goes on, as the detail-oriented procedural nature asserts itself further. Films have those early scenes so that the audience will recognize what people are doing later, especially considering that the IIB isn't exactly giving Sehmat a set of James Bond-level gadgets. It's more than a little fun to watch Sehmat execute her tradecraft and start convincing herself that this is a thing she's good at, enough so that when it stops being fun around intermission time, there's a little more tension than expected. Once things start to go haywire, the filmmakers show a real talent for piling more on in a way that one facet of the danger doesn't get too far ahead of the others The immediate danger to Sehmat is increasing, certainly, but so are tensions back at headquarters over how to respond to what she's uncovered, all while the audience has started to question just how much of her human decency she will have to sacrifice for this mission. Things build impressively through the last act, a nifty balance of small things having big effects and well done chases.

Alia Bhatt impresses as Sehmat, preserving the sense of being young and potentially overwhelmed from the earlier comic scenes throughout the film but later playing a good transition from cockiness to horror as what she's got to do starts to sink in, and a really impressive moment or two toward the end as Sehmat either accepts that she's the villain in a certain scenario or realizes she needs to make people believe it. Bhatt and Gulzar are comfortable letting Sehmat occupy some questionable territory and still be interesting, at least for a while. It is, indisputably, her movie; most all of the other characters are mostly functional, existing relative to her, not given enough depth for the film to get into how they are patriots as well.

The movie reverts a bit to form in the last few scenes, rushing past a lot of ethical challenges and engaging in one too many bits of sleight of hand; the last scene seeks to reassure when it seems things are just getting interesting. It's grown to be a fairly impressive spy movie by then, worth checking out if there's a theater playing Indian films in your neighborhood.

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originally posted: 05/26/18 07:43:58
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  11-May-2018 (12A)

  11-May-2018 (M)

Directed by
  Meghna Gulzar

Written by
  Meghna Gulzar
  Bhavani Iyer

  Alia Bhatt
  Vicky Kaushal
  Jaideep Ahlawat
  Arif Zakaria
  Shishir Sharma

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