The protagonist Sehmat’s (Alia Bhatt) introduction in Raazi is pretty typical: she rushes to save a squirrel from being run over by a passing vehicle, and almost ends up being run over herself.
Contrast this with when a few months later she is running over an old man, in the middle of the night, in a different country, operating a vehicle that she has momentarily stolen. She is sobbing as she commits the brutal act, but as an the audience, the director is asking you to ponder over the fate of this innocent, young girl who goes on to carry her family’s legacy, of fighting for one’s land. Her father did, her grandfather did, and neither she nor her father think her gender is an issue to contend with.
What makes her atypical? She is good with numbers, her resolve is above average as she withstands harsh training from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), and she overcomes her initial fear of the pistol eventually firing rapid shots without flinching. These make for great moments on screen given how rarely we have seen women do them in cinema. Somewhere, we associate these institutions and these acts with unparalleled power, and to see women excel at them after they have been denied those opportunities will certainly give you goosebumps.
But even as the film gets carried away in its dramatic moments, there’s little attempt to prise open the internal conflict of a character who appeases two masculine forces – patriarchy within the home and the Indian military outside. What was the space beyond, where Sehmat negotiated her displacement from the multiple aspects of herself — home, family, country, self? Perhaps she had a lifetime to ponder upon that, and that would have been a so far unexplored space.
Raazi is a film about an woman, but it still prizes that she was able to do, as a woman, what men have. In that sense, it celebrates masculine enterprise. It is smart, because it taps into the two popular sentiments of the current time: nationalism and a version of feminism where masculinity becomes one to aspire to. But, as cinema and television are developing a keen interest in representing women’s lives that challenge conventions, how does one represent figures from history through a spirit that has succeeded that time?
Set twenty plus years before Raazi, The Crown is another biographical tale of a woman negotiating masculine territory. As it follows the slow transitioning of Elizabeth into the insipid crown wearer, it collapses the two to show how the woman dies in her quest to be fair to the throne. But, much to my disappointment, I found that there wasn’t much of a woman in the first place. A few paltry scenes aside, the interior world of Elizabeth where she is not attempting to please an entity outside of herself is rarely focused on.
Women in public life are intriguing because while they leave behind an inspiring legacy, the burdens of their heart and the parts of them that they’ve had to the reject or renegotiate to be accepted are rarely explored with deserved poignancy.
The writers do well to exquisitely bring out Princess Margaret’s rebellious streak, on the other hand. As she goes through her days of heartbreak-fuelled alcoholism, depression and eventually an impulsive marriage to photographer Antony Jones, her sister spends days sorting matters of the state, rarely coming undone as personal and professional pressures mount. Prince Philip, unable to take Elizabeth’s stoicism at a point, tells her: ‘these jewels used to wear you; now, you wear them’.
The hero of the second season though, is Prince Philip; long-distance travel brings out the soft-hearted family man behind the bad boy. And his back story is compelling. Packed off to a boarding school as an adolescent, and losing some of his closest family in the second world war soon after the separation, you develop a strange empathy, even affection for the adult Philip. You see the context to his masculinity, and waywardness.
Quite in contrast, neither Margaret nor Elizabeth are portrayed as personalities – polarised as they are in their respective ways of being women – that have been made due to circumstance as much as they are portrayed as inherent beings. It remains to be seen if and how their characters will evolve.
This trope of immersing male leads in sympathy-laden backstories and providing ample cushioning within the narrative till he comes of his own, and becomes a hero in his own right is a privilege that is rarely available to pop culture’s women. Even for some of the most progressive films from the contemporary landscape of mainstream cinema like Dear Zindagi or Bareilly Ki Barfi, the characters move from crippling rejection to acceptance. It is barely a conquest for women, as much as a shift in self-perception.