Book vs. Movie

Calling Sehmat vs. Raazi

Nirbhay Kanoria

May 24, 2018

Adaptation ScoreThe adaptation score is a scale used to measure the accuracy of the book’s adaptation into a movie. It is not a score which judges how good the book or movie is: 8/10

In 1971, Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, became an independent country after a bloody and violent war. India supported Bangladesh with its military power, irking its western neighbour. In 2008, Harinder S. Sikka published a book, Calling Sehmat, loosely based on the true story of an Indian spy who married a Pakistani and lived in Pakistan during the time, collecting vital information for her country. In 2018, the book was made into Raazi, a movie starring Alia Bhatt.

Both the movie and the book are thrilling and keep you on the edge of your seat. Before we go forward, there are a few characters who will be referenced through the piece, so it is best to introduce them now. The protagonist of the story, Sehmat; her Indian trainer and handler, Mir; her father-in-law Army Brigadier Sheikh Sayeed (in the books) or Parvez Syed (in the movie); and her loving husband Iqbal. Also, as we will be analysing and comparing both the movie and the book, be prepared to come across spoilers, so read at your own risk!

Whenever a book is adapted into a movie, one of the most interesting aspects to watch out for is the film-characterisation of the book-characters and the how the actors portray them on screen. The first step is definitely the casting, and in this case, the director, Meghna Gulzar, and her team got it spot on. It seemed as if the actors were perfectly made to depict their book counterparts, and as if the roles were written just for them. This is one of the primary reasons why I can call this is a fairly successful adaptation. No review of the movie can be complete without mentioning Alia Bhatt’s brilliant performance; the integrity, the nuances, and the sympathy she brought to the screen while playing Sehmat alone made the movie worth watching.

Both the book and the movie focused a lot on Sehmat’s dedication and passion towards any cause she took up, but the way they portrayed it was different. The book focused a lot on her passion for dance, and Sikka writes a particularly poignant scene where Sehmat is so lost in her dance performance that she doesn’t even realise that her foot is cut and is bloodying the entire stage. The movie instead, chooses to skip this and depicts her dedication only to her country and spends a lot of time showing it by going into details of her spy-training. I preferred how the book deals with it because it not only showed Sehmat’s willingness to work hard and her passion from a young age but also presented a more multi-faceted side to the protagonist as opposed to the unidimensional character we come across in the movie. However, I can understand why it was skipped in the film since the dance scene would definitely be a distraction and take away from the edginess and pacing of the movie.

However, my bigger issue is with Sehmat’s character evolution while in Pakistan and the portrayal of her husband, Iqbal. In the book, Sehmat participates far more actively in the Syed household and even influences Brigadier Syed’s decisions and gives him lessons on strategy and political savviness. In the movie, Mir has warned Sehmat not to make herself conspicuous and she dutifully fulfils her instructions by being a relative wallflower at her in-laws’ and going about her mission quietly in the background. Furthermore, in the book, she makes active cold-blooded decisions such as killing her brother-in-law, as opposed to the movie where instructions are given by her Indian superiors and she is shown in a moral conundrum as to whether or not to follow them.

(Source: WHeadline)

The movie, therefore, depicts a much softer side to her- where she understands the importance of her mission but at the same time grapples with the humaneness of her actions and seems more of a ‘follower’ as opposed to a ‘decision maker’. The choice to develop her character in such a way makes Sehmat come across as someone caught in a tough situation in the movie, whereas in the book she is clearly a deadly spy who only focuses on the success of her mission, irrespective of who or what needs to be sacrificed in order to complete it. In fact, we rarely come across Sehmat’s ‘human side’ in the book, and it is only at the end that we see her emotional side.

The character of Iqbal too is portrayed rather differently. In the book, he is much more of a doting lover, shown with little brains or conviction. In the book, he is so hopelessly in love with her that he goes along with her plans, and sacrifices his widowed sister-in-law so Sehmat can escape safely to India.  In the movie, he is much better etched out- he gives Sehmat the choice of when to have sex with him, displays a passion for jazz music and chooses to understand Hindustani classical as his wife enjoys it. In the end, he picks loyalty to his country over his love for her, resulting in his own death. I found this problematic as it made Sehmat’s journey in the book seem all too easy, while the movie showed a lot more of her struggles and the tough choices she had to make.

(Source: DNA)

One very important aspect of any book adaptation is how true the movie has stayed to the plot. Very often you find a book is almost unrecognisable in its film version, a clear case of this being Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone which was as different from Three Idiots as chalk is from cheese. However, Raazi stayed pleasantly true to Calling Sehmat.

Having said that, there are a few glaring differences between the two. Once again, I understand the reason for omitting them as the pace of the movie would be severely affected, but nonetheless, I did miss these bits in the movie. The first and most important difference is the deletion of the character Abhinav or Aby, Sehmat’s lover back in India. Sehmat met Aby in college and he plays an important role in ensuring she is selected to play Mirabai despite the college board’s opposition to her being chosen as she is Muslim. More importantly, in the end, when she has an emotional break down he is the one who adopts and raises her son till she is able to care for him again. Much to my surprise, the entire character of Aby was deleted from the movie.

One major plot difference between the book and the movie is the network of spies and informers who help Sehmat while she is in Pakistan. The book only shows a handful of people doing this, and that too not till the end of the book. The movie instead depicts her constantly leaning on others, whether rickshaw-wallahs, fruit and flower sellers or seniors in the Indian embassy who are assisting her or providing her with guidance. The book makes it seem like a one-man operation, and that too from a relatively naïve and untrained girl, as opposed to the movie where it seems more realistic and probable.

Another interesting difference is the depiction of religion in the book. It pays much more attention to religious differences and Hindu-Muslim sensitivities while the movie only focuses on the nationality angle. In fact, in the movie, there is no reference to anyone’s religion, but only to their nationality. This makes for a refreshing change in the current political scenario where so much importance is given to religious differences. By not focusing on the religious angle, the movie intelligently portrays that nationality and loyalty to one’s nation are well above religion and, unlike the book, does not imply that Sehmat’s role was more praise-worthy because she was a Muslim loyal to India.

(Source: Bollyworm)

I cannot say I enjoyed one version significantly more than the other. Both portrayed various aspects of this true story in different ways. Given an author doesn’t set a time frame within which the reader must finish his book, he is a lot more at liberty to introduce subplots. The director and scriptwriter of the movie need to keep the movie taut and every moment interesting, and therefore need to really whittle the story down to the essentials. This is the case when it came to Raazi vis-à-vis Calling Sehmat.

At the end of the movie, Sehmat gives Mir a moving speech on humanity and war, on how she doesn’t want to become a ‘soldier’ who can sacrifice people without thinking of the consequences. I wonder how the book would have been had there been a similar speech, instead of Sehmat simply accept that sacrifice is part of the nature of war. I wonder how gripped I would have been till the end of the movie had I known that Sehmat survives her stay in Pakistan and dies an old woman in India as I did from the opening pages of the books. The book almost seemed tranquil despite the thrilling story, while the movie kept you on edge throughout.

All-in-all, it is definitely one of the better adaptations I have seen, and I cannot recommend both versions enough. I encourage you to read the book and watch the movie. The order in which you choose to do so, I leave up to you.

What did you enjoy more- the book or the movie? Any other differences you’d like to highlight? Share with us in the comments!

Nirbhay Kanoria

Nirbhay Kanoria

As a young boy, Nirbhay had the annoying habit of waking up at 5 a.m. Since television was a big no-no, he had no choice but to read to entertain himself and that is how his love affair with books began. A true-blue Piscean, books paved the path to his fantasy worlds- worlds he’d often rather stay in. Nirbhay is the co-founder and publisher of The Curious Reader.

You can read his articles, here.