If Alia Bhatt had not been willing, Raazi would not have been made – it’s that simple.

Meghna Gulzar’s latest movie stars the talented actress as an undercover Kashmiri agent spying on the Pakistani family into which she is married in the months before the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The movie is an official adaptation of Harinder S Sikka’s 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, and will be released on May 11.

“I knew that the girl was a 20-year-old Kashmiri and in my head I knew that it had to be Alia Bhatt and no one else,” Gulzar told Scroll.in. “I knew the graph that the girl was going to go through and the performance that was going to be needed. I was really sure that she was the only one that was going to be able to pull it off. I told her that if she was not going to do the film, I would not make it.”

Sikka’s novel, which claims to be based on real characters and incidents, is the story of Sehmat Khan, who inherits her spying duties from her father, Hidayat Khan. Sehmat is trained by the Research and Analysis Wing before marrying a Pakistani Army captain, whose father is a brigadier. Sehmat’s efforts provide the Indian government with vital intelligence in the build-up to the 1971 war.

“More than what drew me to the book, I think I should say the book itself drew me to it,” Gulzar said. I was hearing the story from three different people. Priti Shahani of Junglee Pictures had been trying to acquire the rights to the book. She asked me if I’d like to make the film if she got the rights and I readily agreed. But it didn’t work out. Then I got a call from a different production house saying there was a subject they wanted to discuss with me. It turned out to be the same book. But that didn’t work out either.”

Another Gulzar was initially asked to adapt the novel – the director’s father. Sikka had approached Gulzar, the renowned lyricist and filmmaker, to convert his book into a movie. “My father did not want to take it up at that point, but over the years, I had developed a rapport with Sikka and he told me, look, I don’t know who is going to produce the film but I’m very sure I’d want you to direct it,” Meghna Gulzar said.

The resulting screenplay, co-written with Bhavani Iyer (Black, Lootera, 24: India), has been produced by Junglee Pictures and Dharma Productions. The movie also stars Rajit Kapur and Soni Razdan as Sehmat’s parents, Vicky Kaushal as Sehmat’s husband, and Jaideep Ahlawat as her RAW handler.

Raazi (2018).

Although the story is set in 1971, it talks to the present in more ways than one. Relations between India and Pakistan are highly precarious at the moment, while the pushback against the Kashmiri autonomy movement has been heightened over the past few months. The patriotism displayed by Raazi’s heroine – she declares that she will sacrifice everything for her country, including her body – is at odds with the anger on the streets of Kashmir against the Army and the Indian government.

“I would really like people to see the film and figure out how we’ve approached the dynamic between India and Pakistan,” Gulzar said. “My sensibility is not one that is predatory to social circumstances or uses them to pitch a story. Yes, there is definitely a perspective that I offer, but let’s talk about it after everyone has seen the film.”

Gulzar described Raazi as a simple story of an ordinary woman who is put through very extraordinary circumstances. “Sehmat is not a femme fatale, she is an ordinary college-going girl who gets picked up and is put through a remarkable journey,” Gulzar explained. “She is not a superhuman. There is a vulnerability to her and that quality stays with her till the end of her story. On the face of it, the film may come across as this espionage drama or thriller, but it is not Mission: Impossible. It is not going to be a hysterical, exaggerated, espionage thriller – those words scare me, actually. Even if my film belongs to that genre, it may not execute it or follow the format of the films in the genre. For me, and for all of us in the crew, it is this woman’s journey that has been inspiring.”

The movie considerably expands on Sehmat’s back story and her motivations. “There is a lot in the book that is not explained in detail,” Gulzar said. “For example, what did Sehmat’s training at RAW involve? What was the time period? These things we needed to thresh out and that involved a lot if research which wasn’t easy to come by. Intelligence agencies will obviously not share their modus operandi with you. You have to pick things up from the conversations you’ve had with people in these agencies, use a little bit of your imagination and yes, keep it grounded in terms of certain contextual things, such as what could have been available technologically in 1971.”

Gulzar made her debut in 2002 with Filhaal. She directed Just Married in 2007 and contributed to the anthology film Dus Kahaniyaan that year, but the critical and commercial breakthrough came with Talvar in 2015. The movie is based on the 2008 double murder of teenager Aarushi Talwar and domestic worker Hemraj Banjade. Talwar’s parents were convicted for the murder, but were acquitted in 2017 by the Allahabad High Court. Talvar makes a strong case for their innocence.

“For example, when Vishalji (Bharadwaj) discussed the subject of Talvar with me, I realised it is completely different from the kind of films I had made before that,” Gulzar said. “It was a dark and gritty subject and I had no idea if I would be able to pull it off. But it took me a fraction of a second to say yes, this is a film I want to make. There is something inside you that calls out to you and tells you, yes, go ahead.”

Talvar (2015).

For Raazi, Gulzar followed an approach that has been with her through all her productions. She doesn’t storyboard the scenes, for instance. “I like to be on the sets and break down my scenes after taking in the space around me,” she said. “For example, in Raazi, we’d shoot nine to ten scenes in the same day and most of them were within a house inside a bedroom. How differently can you execute them? But what I do is when one scene gets over, I then look at the next scene and the approach comes instinctively – whether it is picking a colour or choosing a fabric or what the frame would be like.”

Meghna Gulzar.