Well, this was a shockingly good movie! I highly highly highly recommend it. Also, I am now in love with Vicky Kaushal.
This is a very small story, a very human level story. We don’t see the big troop movements, the explosions, any of that. We just see the household and the people within it. And our heroine. And when you keep the story on that human level, suddenly all those big speeches about the country and nationalism and all that start to seem empty. What does some abstract concept of country matter versus the person in front of you?
It’s a bit of a bait and switch, the trailer and the songs and the promos emphasized the patriotism of the story, how even a fragile young girl was emboldened by the love for India and so on and so on. And then you watch the movie, and it’s not that at all! There are patriotic speeches, sure. But there is also a love story, and a story of a family, and a community, and a father and daughter, and a mother and daughter, and just generally A LOT. Patriotism is just one part of a person.
The most important lesson is that everyone is patriotic, no one country is necessarily better than another, but you have to choose simply because it is your country and it is right to be loyal to it. The Pakistanis aren’t terrible villains, they are simply being loyal to their country. And the Indians aren’t perfect heroes, they are just doing the same.
This is a film that resists the emotional moment at almost every turn. Not that their are no emotions, but rather than building the audience up to a peak of hatred, or despair, or fear, the camera keeps us a little at a distance. We can enjoy the story and the puzzle and the pretty house and the clever moments, without feeling over-whelmed by them. Until the very end, when, finally, our heroine lets herself break down and suddenly it all comes out.
But until then, the other interesting thing about this film is that it is a bit of a female fantasy. At least as much as spy movies are usually male fantasies. Our heroine’s love interest, Vicky Kaushal, is the perfect man. He is handsome and kind and thoughtful, a wonderful reward in the middle of all her fears and struggles. And our heroine always wins, she is so smart and quick witted, she shows up everyone who doubts her always, it’s a great adventure for little girls to watch and fantasize about being a part of. Or for older woman to watch, I enjoyed it too!
Oh, and Alia does a predictably wonderful job. She is a perfect lead for this film, although I am beginning to get a bit tired of the “Alia sobs as her life falls apart around her” scenes. Let the poor girl smile sometimes!
But while Alia is good, it is the two male leads around her who steal the film. Vicky Kaushal as a new kind of perfect quiet laidback hero, and Jaideep Ahlawat as the unpredictable spymaster who trains Alia. And now that I see that, I realize that isn’t a coincidence. In India, Alia has the withholding complicated amoral spy master, and in Pakistan she has the perfect kind generous husband. She may love India more, but that doesn’t mean it treats her right.
This film was sold as a patriotic film, but it is not that at all. It is a female fantasy of being an awesome spy, and a subtle contradiction to patriotism. There is a reason that the patriotic song in the film is called “Ae Watan”, it simply means “country”, the word “India” is never mentioned. It is a plea of love for your country, whatever country that is.
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Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Rajit Kapur is visiting his old friend Shishir Sharma in Pakistan, as the East Pakistan secession movement is growing. Rajit tells Shishir that he is dying, and Shishir is sincerely sympathetic. And Rajit asks one favor before he dies. Rajit then talks to Jaideep Ahlawat, his spy handler, saying that he has word of something big happening in the next few months and he doesn’t have a few months left to find out what it is. But there is someone else who can do it. Finally, Alia is introduced at college, being called home urgently. And her father tells her he is dying, and he needs her to carry on his spying on Pakistan for India. At first he simply orders her, but later that night he tells her he doesn’t want to force her to do this, and she agrees anyway, says she wants to do it. Jaideep Ahlawat takes her away for a month of training, it is tough, he is unkind and impatient, but she sticks with it and succeeds. And then goes home to be married off to Vicky Kaushal, younger son of Shishir Sharma, and live in their house as a spy. It is all surprisingly easy, partly because Shishir’s family is so extremely kind to her. Vicky sleeps on the sofa, saying they should “get to know each other”, Shishir tries to make her feel welcome, her older sister-in-law Amruta Khanvilkar helps her to understand the household, and even her new brother-in-law Ashwath Bhatt is nice when he notices her. Alia sets up a telegraph wire and hides surveillance equipment in the bathroom, and puts bugs in Shishir’s office. The only person who seems truly suspicious is the chief of staff for the household, but he might simply dislike her as the new daughter-in-law. Alia gets closer and closer to the household, and to her husband, finally sleeping with him after they return from her father’s funeral and he is kind to her and gives her his mother’s anklets. Alia also volunteers to teach a song to the children for a school function, which gives her a chance to get into the General’s house. All is going well, and she has passed on information indicating a submarine attack on India, when the chief of staff catches her and finds the telegraph machine. He runs out into the night to report her, she runs after him, and finally steals a truck and runs him down, killing him. INTERVAL
Alia’s brother-in-law Ashwath Bhatt is suspicious of the death, and keeps investigating. Alia isn’t sure what to do and asks for advice from her handlers, who tell her to use an umbrella, meaning kill him with a poisoned umbrella. Alia does it, but feels terrible afterwards, especially seeing the grief of her sister-in-law and husband. Her position is becoming more and more precarious, and Jaideep Ahlawat in India wants to pull her out and starts plans in motion for that. The other spies in the area start to be rounded up, Alia is more and more alone. Her sister-in-law is brought in for questioning as there is a suspicion that there is a spy in their household, and they are all put under surveillance. And Jaideep himself arrives in Pakistan, in the guise of a fellow officer come to offer condolences, and manages to get a message to Alia to meet him in the shopping mall in 2 hours to be extracted. Alia prepares to leave, but is confronted by her husband. He found a piece of the anklet he gave her in the servant’s room near where the surveillance equipment was hidden. He knows it was her. Alia pulls a gun and prepares to shoot him, in tears, when suddenly they are interrupted by a little boy, son of another officer, and Alia takes him as her hostage and escapes. Vicky reports all this to his father. At the meet, Jaideep suddenly realizes they have been made and can’t extract her, Vicky shows up to arrest her, and Jaideep switches to plan B, shoots a dart in her shoulder to knock her out and then throws a bomb, killing both Alia and Vicky. Only, when Jaideep and his crew go back to their hide out, they are surprised by a knock on the door and Alia appearing. She traded places with another woman, that woman was killed. And now she knows that her handler was ready to kill her if he had to. She breaks down in tears and begs to go home. As she crosses the border into India, she faints, and learns she is pregnant. She decides to continue the pregnancy and now, in the present day, we see that her son has grown up to be an Indian army officer, and Alia sits alone in an empty room, with her memories.
So, that was a lot! Let me start with the bit I have been interested in since the film was announced, and just became more interested in as I read interviews and watched trailers and so on, that Alia chooses to have her husband’s baby in India. My first reaction was that it was going to weaken the character, to make it as though the audience could only sympathize with her if she was ultimately a “good” wife. And then I thought it would be a moment of sacrifice, that she loved her country so much, she was able to give up a woman’s greatest joy, being with her husband.
But it’s not like that at all! The relationship with Vicky is just part of a larger whole. Yes, he is a wonderful husband and she comes to love him and knows he loves her and that is heartbreaking. But more generally, she makes connections with the people in Pakistan, she can’t help but make those connections when she is living in their home and they are opening themselves up to her. Her mission was to make them trust her, but she didn’t realize that would end with her coming to trust and care for them as well.
She loves her husband not just because he is a kind good man, but because her new family gives her time to come to love him, her father-in-law is a kind head of the household, her sister-in-law is supportive and encouraging, they give her a lovely room, privacy, wealth, and freedom. She is able to go into the market and wander by herself whenever she wishes, she is introduced to the other women of the community and they are welcoming and kind to her, even the little children are nice.
And nothing she discovers in her spying contradicts that. These are not evil crazed men, these are dedicated army officers trying to solve an issue within their country. The only man who seems to truly hate India, to have lost his logic over it, is the head houseman (sorry, can’t find the actor’s name). The rest of the family is merely doing their jobs. As are their friends who come to the house, the women Alia talks to, the people in the marketplace, they are not evil or in any way different from other people. In this setting, it is inevitable that Alia will fall in love with her husband. And, even if she can’t admit it to herself, will also fall in love with the whole household.
This whole mission is based on love from their part and deceit on hers. Shishir Sharma trusts and cares for his old friend enough to, without a second thought, take his daughter into his household. Marry this average girl to his very wealthy and connected son. And never by word or action make her feel she was taken in through pity, or does not belong. And Rajit Kapur and Jaideep Ahlawalla counted on them doing this, knew this was a kind good family who would give Alia trust and freedom that she could then abuse.
That is why she keeps the baby. She says it is because she has “killed enough”, but for me it is also the culmination of her character’s journey. She went into it naively thinking that love for India was all that was required. And then she learned the pain of putting that love above all else. And all that is left is for her to honor her family in Pakistan, her dead husband, the love she was given there, by giving birth to this child and raising it with love.
One interview I read with the author of the novel this is based on mentioned that the real life woman asked for the right to fly the tricolor outside of her house every day. That was a potential ending, she did all of this for her country and it is worth it if her house is empty but she has the flag. Only, instead, this film drops that part. Her house is simply empty in the end. An empty room on a remote hill, no flowers blooming, none of the warmth and happiness that we saw in her childhood home or in her marriage home. This was the price of her patriotism, all that is good and beautiful cut out of her.
That is the most interesting part to me, the end with Alia alone and miserable, but this film is a rich tapestry with multiple other moments leading up to that. For instance, her early conversations with her father as to if she should agree to this plan. Her father puts it that his father had given him no choice, and so he does not need to give her one. But later he has a change of heart. Only for Alia to respond that she still has no choice, because her family’s blood runs in her veins and she is already dedicated to India.
There is a lesson of country-above-child that is starting from here. Alia’s grandfather was a freedom fighter, suffering in jails. Her father was ordered to join him, and later to become a double agent for India, a tricky game. And now as her father is dying, he is forcing Alia to carry on the family tradition. His final act is not to “settle” his daughter in the world, but rather to protect his country. And at the time, Alia does not question it.
But the film questions it. The moment in training when Alia tries to call her parents for support and then stops herself, it doesn’t play like the usual moment of heroic weakness followed by greater strength, it feels like perhaps she has shaken herself awake from a nightmare, realized she doesn’t want this after all, before forcing herself back into it. The same moments keep happening, nightmares and questions and fears. And Alia pushing through them is not played as a triumph of strength, but rather the ugly price she is paying for what she has been ordered to do.
This is supposedly a “true story”, I just saw a recent interview with the author (here) where he talks about more information he will be revealing if he gets permission from her son, but there were still multiple artistic choices in how to present it, even the details of what happened. And the choices made in this film increasingly turn our heroine into more of an anti-hero. She is in the right because she is on “our” side, fighting for India, But we can see how, without that, she would be the villain who destroyed innocent lives.
She tricks small children, and later uses them as hostages. She kills her brother-in-law, destroying her sister-in-law’s life only to protect her cover. She breaks the heart and trust of her very decent husband, and father-in-law. And in the end she learns that she herself was expendable, her handler who seemed to care for her was ready to kill her. And she causes another death, that of the nice woman who agreed to trade places with her. She brings death and misery to every one who touches her, all for an abstract notion of India.
The film could easily avoid this. We see that in the first half. For the first half of the film it is all a delightful game. She struggles in training, and then conquers her fears and becomes the Best Agent Ever. She tricks her way into the household, meets up with her contacts, plants bugs, sends messages, and at the same time gets to be romanced by her perfect husband. Being a spy is wonderful and fun. And then, just at the interval, it starts to shift. She has to kill a man. In self-defense, and he is a generally unpleasant person, but still it is murder. It seems as though this is the peak of the film, after all the servant has been her nemesis from the beginning, this is the one big action scene she will have, the exciting moment of violence. And then we will go back to the fun trickery and romance and all the rest.
But instead, the interval is the turning point into darkness. The filmmakers choose to make her go further and further, murdering and lying and doing terrible things to people who have been nothing but kind to her. Culminating in Jaideep confronting her with the possibility that she caused the death of the woman impersonating her, and of her husband. Yes, Jaideep made the decision and threw the bomb, but she was the one who arranged for the two of them to be there, who set these events in motion. That is why Alia sobs, because she sees not just that Jaideep does not care for her, but that he is right and she is turning into him, someone who sees people only as tools to serve her country instead of people on their own.
The message of this film is country over all, but it is not necessarily a blessing. Alia loses everything in her love for her country. And so does every other character. Jaideep has clearly lost his humanity long ago. Rajit Kapur loses his daughter in the last few months of his life, after having spent his life dedicated to service thanks to a decision his father made for him. And Alia’s Pakistani family loses everything as well. Vicky’s heart breaks, but he knows he must turn in his wife. Shishir loses both his sons through their dedication to their country. Patriotism is a curse, it causes you to lose much more than you have gained.
Alia, in the end, is alone and miserable. And then we get a blank screen and text reminding us to honor the silent fighters for India’s freedom. As I read it, it is not a message of honoring her bravery and dedication, but rather her sacrifice. To give up any hope of a happy life, for just a few months of service to her country. It’s a different kind of price, not the usual cinematic exciting dramatic sacrifice we see in most films, but something more, something which invites us to question the whole idea of patriotism.
(Oh, and I guess this is the best time to mention that Alia co-stars for the first time with her mother, Soni Razdan, playing her mother in the film and being excellent as always)