BOOK EXCERPT

The bit from ‘Calling Sehmat’ that’s not there in ‘Raazi’: The Kashmiri spy’s first love

Meghna Gulzar’s ‘Raazi’, starring Alia Bhatt, is based on Harinder Sikka’s espionage thriller.

Meghna Gulzar’s movie Raazi is based on Harinder Sikka’s 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, in which a Kashmiri woman marries the son of a Pakistani brigadier in order to carry out espionage for the Indian government. The novel is set before the 1971 Indo-Pak war, and recounts Sehmat’s efforts in executing vital operations that help India win the war. Sehmat inherits the role from her father, businessman Hidayat Khan. Gulzar’s movie, which was released on May 11, stars Alia Bhatt in the lead role. In these edited excerpts, Sikka reveals Sehmat’s back story, which includes an aborted romance with her college mate Abhinav.

Abhinav, Sehmat’s first love

Watching Sehmat was like witnessing poetry in motion. Her peaches and cream complexion, combined with the sharp features common to those from the Valley, was breathtaking. Her movements were effortless which gave an impression that she was gliding instead of walking. To the men who looked at her, she seemed like she had descended from the heavens and did not belong to this world.

Many speculated that she had a boyfriend back home since she did not encourage the men. Only her close friends knew that Sehmat did not have any male friends. Looking at her parents, she knew that true love was sacred and it existed. She was also convinced that it would cross her path some day. In her mind she was very clear about the kind of man she would fall in love with. She would see him in her dreams, approaching her and filling her life with meaning, love and strength. She knew he would sweep her off her feet and take her away from the ordinary world to paradise.

Little did she know what destiny had in mind. It was during the annual college celebrations that fate introduced her to Abhinav.

Aby, as he was fondly called by his close friends, belonged to a wealthy and influential Delhi family. Tall and athletic, he looked like a hero from a romantic novel. Women tried to attract his attention but failed. While some admired his drop-dead good looks, there were others who were more attracted to his hefty bank balance. Even though the entire campus swooned over him, he kept to himself and often sat on the last bench of the classroom.

No one, however, knew that instead of taking notes, Aby often penned down his heartfelt feelings in the form of poetry that had only one theme—the beautiful, unattainable Sehmat. He was in complete awe of her ethereal beauty and often described her as a Kashmiri princess who had lost her identity in an alien city. He loved his princess deeply but could never muster enough courage to approach her. Instead, he poured out his feelings in his poems, which, by his third year in college, had become an impressive collection.

Duty over love

Their love blossomed with each passing day. It was rare for either to be seen alone, except in the classroom. Even while attending lectures, Sehmat fought hard to focus on her studies.

They met regularly even as the annual exam fever gripped the college. Aby promised to carefully study her notes but found it difficult to focus. Somewhere deep within, he was worried about the approaching summer vacation that would take his sweetheart away from him.

Perhaps he had a sense of foreboding of the impending storm in their lives.

On the day of their last exam, Sehmat had barely stepped out of the hall when an unknown person approached her. He introduced himself and gave her a sealed envelope. Thinking it to be one of Aby’s pranks, she looked at the envelope carefully and found the sender’s name at the bottom. She was taken by surprise and hurriedly opened it and read the short note. Mir had requested her to fly back to Srinagar. The envelope also contained an air ticket for a flight that was scheduled to depart the next day.

Sehmat instinctively realized that all was not well at home. Shortly thereafter, she was sitting in the principal’s room, talking to her mother over the phone. Aby sat by her side, maintaining a studied composure. Tej tried her best to allay her daughter’s fears and pretend that all was okay, but failed. Aby too couldn’t do much to bring cheer to her face.

Once at home, Sehmat slowly became aware of what was happening. She came to know about her father’s ailment and spent a day crying as she thought about the possibility of him passing away. Her mother was patient with her, talking and explaining things till late in the night. Sehmat told her about Aby, and the two found solace in their tears. Tej told Sehmat about the possibility of her becoming a part of the intelligence-gathering network across the border. Even though she had dreaded talking about it, she explained how it would happen.

‘Aby is but a small sacrifice,’ she said. ‘Your father has toiled hard and taken grave risks for the sake of our country. He would like you to take over from here and help in controlling the other end, especially in light of the growing battle cries from the overconfident Pakistani Generals. Besides, we have known the Sayeeds for decades. Iqbal is a very fine, well-mannered and educated boy. You’ll be very happy and safe,’ she said. Sehmat was to be married to the son of a Pakistani Brigadier, Sheikh Sayeed, in a bold move to understand the operation being carried out against India.

Sehmat found the shock of losing both her father and Aby unbearable. She wept and sought explanations from the Almighty in the privacy of her room. If it were a test, she would rather fail than be away from her family and Aby, she argued with him.

Swinging between anger and despair, she sought answers that no one could provide. The dark night reflected her state of mind: a sense of doom reverberating all around the stillness. It was an omen of things to come, Sehmat thought. Her thoughts flew to Aby, who was waiting for her. Her anger was directed towards her fate. She couldn’t let her father down but she also wanted to be with Aby. And there was no middle ground.

Excerpted with permission from Calling Sehmat, Harinder Sikka, Penguin Random House India.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.