A young woman takes the place of her father in combating a foreign foe in a tale of patriotism and sacrifice. And if you already have an Amazon Prime account, then you don’t have to spend thirty bucks for it.
The story begins on a…ship. You know what? I am skipping this part.
The 1947 Partition had split much of the lands of South Asia between India and Pakistan. And while the two countries had become bitter rivals, Pakistan has been in conflict with itself. Formed from the majority Muslim populations of India, Pakistan was itself split in two, with India mostly stuck in the middle. And it seems like simply sharing a religion was not enough to keep a physically separated country from remaining politically united. It was not long before East Pakistan, with its own language, culture, and customs, started to rebel against Western dominance. And it would only get worse.
The story begins in January 1971 in a military station headquarters in Rawalpindi, a city near Islamabad. Brigadier Parvez Sayed is revealing intel to other West Pakistani military leaders regarding the secessionist movement in East Pakistan. Colonel Usmani is leading a coalition of anti-government forces called the Mukti Army, which serves the will of rebel politician Mujibur Rahman. An Indian intelligence officer named Khalid Mir is most likely involved, meaning that the secessionist movement has the secret backing of India.
A man named Hidayat Khan arrives to greet Parvez. They are old friends and colleagues. More importantly, though. Hidayat is Parvez’s contact to India through India-controlled Kashmir. He had provided information on a rogue officer that had joined the Mukti Army. Now Parvez wants to know how India is involved. Hidayat tells him that he will be going back to Kashmir and will find out all that he can. But he has something to tell Parvez now: he has a tumor in his lung. Parvez offers to assist him however he can.
Hidayat crosses the border into Kashmir and returns home. And invites Khalid Mir. Yes, Parvez’s faithful friend is himself an Indian spy. Hidayat tells Khalid that he wants his daughter to replace him as a spy and have access to his contacts in Pakistan. Khalid is reluctant to agree. The girl is an innocent. Hidayat insists that his daughter is an Indian first. Besides, India cannot let up now, as Pakistan has become suspicious and is hatching a scheme to cripple India and prevent it from providing aid to the East. What kind of scheme? Well, Hidayat would not be risking his daughter’s life if he knew. But why her? Because Hidayat has the trust and friendship of Pakistan’s military higher ups, things that he is certain will be transferred to his daughter as opposed to some random spy. Khalid asks if Hidayat had consulted his daughter. Why would he? Hidayat’s father did not consult him when making him a spy. Khalid asks whether he told her. No. But he will tell her. And Khalid will teach her.
So, who is she?
Sehmat Khan is a 20-year-old student at Delhi University. And she is a sweetheart, saving a little squirrel from being run over by a motor-scooter, though she almost gets herself hit by a car in the process and gets a piece of glass stuck in her foot. Since the sight of blood makes her sick, Sehmat’s friend Mitali has to take the piece out, and help her walk to a phone to call the university clinic. Oh, and Sehmat remembers the number to the clinic as she has a photographic memory regarding numbers. Mitali points this out for anyone in the audience who may not have thought to remember this part in the future, because Indian movies are very subtle.
Sehmat and Mitali are walking to clinic when there is a call from Sehmat’s father. Well, I shall assume that the doctor helped her because the movie immediately cuts to Sehmat getting off a bus in Kashmir. Hidayat meets her and notes her limp. They get home and Sehmat greets her mother Teji…who is not exactly happy for this reunion.
So…finally Hidayat reveals the truth to Sehmat. She knew that he worked for the Indian Intelligence Bureau and made frequent trips to Pakistan. So, basically, a spy. She knew that. During the last trip, he learned of a grave threat to India. He is not sure what it is, but it will unfold during the next few months. And he does not have a few months. This is how he tells his daughter. He had known for four months and told Teji only last night. A tearful Sehmat tells him that she would have come home sooner had he told her. But, of course, he did not call her because he was dying; he called her because he needs her to take over for him and thwart whatever Pakistan is planning. In order to do that, he had arranged for her to marry Parvez’s youngest son Iqbal.
It is night and Sehmat cannot sleep, turning the bedside lamp on and off. Hidayat enters and tells her that she can go back to college and not worry about any of this. He was foolish to even consider it, let alone make arrangements that would put his daughter in such danger. She asks him why he had risked his life for India. He tells her that it is his father’s legacy. Hidayat simply did as he was told. But it would be a mistake to make Sehmat do the same. She tells him that she was raised with the same values as he had: nothing comes before the country, not even oneself.
After a few days, the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi is ready to start her training. It is not the best of starts as she spills her glass of water on the meeting table, but whatever. Khalid introduces Sehmat to Nikhil Bakshi, who will accompany her during her training. Khalid tells her that, as a field agent, there is a set of things that will determine her actions, and that she cannot take any actions of her own will. Any information that she receives will be passed on to the agency. She must have her eyes and ears open at all times. If she fears that her cover may be compromised, then it probably already is. She must tell them and they will extract her immediately. Sehmat asks if he thinks that she can actually pull this off. He says that he is withholding judgment until after she goes through a month of training. Then he will answer the question.
Khalid takes Sehmat on a brief tour of their surveillance office, showing her some binoculars and bugs. When it looks like she is overly interested in a certain piece of machinery, Khalid takes another little device and tosses it at her face, scolding her for not being alert.
Khalid talks to her about the communication system. Since, phone calls can be easily intercepted, she will have to relay information through Morse Code through a unit that she will have installed herself in the Sayed house. Oh, and she will have to learn Morse Code. She also learns the names of her in-laws to be and their codenames.
And we get to the montage. Running. Khalid attacking her at random times. Learning takedowns. Morse Code. The shooting range. Poison. It is a bit much at times. At one point, Sehmat snaps at Khalid, but he retorts that she will be the only one to face consequences if she messes up. And one mistake may mean death. Her death.
Khalid gives her a list of about twenty phone numbers. He tells her to memorize the list…which she does in about eleven seconds. He is skeptical, but quizzes her anyways. And she passes easily. He is suspicious, but Nikhil insists that he had only just made that list.
Another montage, but now she is getting better. Slipping in a bug. Takedowns. Morse Code. Fending off Khalid’s surprise attack and throwing him to the floor. He smiles.
Sehmat asks again: does he think that she will be able to pull this off? He tells her that he is certain of it. But now it is his turn to ask a question. She must have had some plans for the future; her own dreams. Why did she choose to do this? She talks about how her father spent months in jail and took so many beatings in order to serve the nation. His blood runs through her veins, and so does his willingness to submit his own self to India.
It is the day of the wedding. The Sayed family arrives at the house before dawn. The ceremony lasts I don’t know how long, but it is pretty bright when Sehmat hugs her parents goodbye. She is now the wife of Iqbal and a member of the Sayeds. Sehmat gets into one of the cars and leaves with her new family. Just as her father had to during his trips, she and the Sayeds have to walk across the border, show paperwork to the guards, and get into different cars that are waiting for them. Now she is Sehmat Sayed: citizen of Pakistan.
Munira, wife of elder brother Mehboob, shows Sehmat around the house and introduces her to the staff. Parvez warmly welcomes her to the family and tells Iqbal to take her upstairs.
It is just the two of them in the bedroom. Sehmat sits on the bed, but Iqbal decides to sleep on the sofa across the room, and pull out the separator thingamee so that she can have privacy. He tells her that their fathers made this match, but that the two of them must get to know each other for themselves. And they will both need time. So he reveals himself to be not a total jerk. He is about to close the separator when Sehmat asks him to leave it open just a smidge; so he does. He puts on a light jazz record, and hopes that she doesn’t mind. She doesn’t.
The next morning, Sehmat is in the kitchen, telling Salma the servant that she can make breakfast instead. Another servant named Abdul arrives, saying that she does not have to take the trouble. When Sehmat says that it is no trouble, Abdul gets a little…passive aggressive…and closer…insinuating that she is usurping meal plans from Munira. Sehmat pretends not to notice his tone. But it is fine. As Khalid told her, it may take weeks before they all warm up to her, so she should not try to ingratiate herself too forcefully.
Munira talks to her about this later on. She says that Abdul is a little too possessive about the family. Sehmat asks whether he was like this with her as well when she first arrived. Sort of…but Sehmat thinks that his attitude towards her is due to her being Indian. That could be it. But Munira says that Abdul himself is Indian, having moved to Pakistan after the Partition. Well…um…that might suggest the exact opposite of what you think it does, Munira. If anything, that might be the precise reason why he hates her. I am sure that his journey from India to Pakistan was a lot more eventful than Sehmat’s.
As Sehmat tries to insert herself into the family’s routine, she gets closer and closer to being able to get information. Eventually, she gets the opportunity to set up her telegraph device, threading wires from the phone lines and clothes dryers and down into her bathroom. She sends her initial message, which eventually makes its way to the Delhi Intelligence Bureau. She also takes a tour of the city with Munira, silently noting the locations of the local contacts.
It is dinner time and Parvez is on edge. Apparently, his shot at promotion has hit a snag, and Lt. General Beig is favoring some guy named Farooqi. Mehboob suggests that he speak to Beig about it, but Parvez says that Beig has made up his mind and that Farooqi would never turn it down.
The next day, Sehmat has a servant drive her into the city and wait for an hour. Once she is out of his sight, she takes out what looks like an Afghan-style full face-concealing burqa from her bag and puts it on. She meets with a rickshaw driver named Imtiaz, who takes her to a flower-shop owner named Sadiq. Sadiq gives her a phone that lets her talk with Kabir Murtuza, her contact at the Indian embassy. She tells him that Parvez’s promotion is tentative and that “South” should send a few gifts.
The gifts arrive for the various family members. Parvez receives what looks like a tablecloth. Very nice. But, more importantly, when he holds it right up to the light, it shows him the coordinates to a Mukti Army training camp. He passes this information to Lt. General Beig, who is very impressed. Though everyone had escaped before they arrived, that is at least one place that they will not be able to use anymore. The promotion is his.
That night at a gathering, Parvez introduces Sehmat to various important figures, even Kabir Murtaza and his wife Pallavi. She also meets Beig.
Iqbal has a gift for Sehmat: several records of Indian Classical music. It is not necessarily his bag, preferring Jazz and Western Classical, but she loves it, and that is what matters. Later, after Parvez asks her to lock up his office for him, she plants a listening device in there and also makes a mold of the key that she will take to Sadiq to get a copy made. And all that works pays off with one piece of information that she would have probably learned later on anyways: the meetings that had been taking place in Parvez’s office will now take place at Beig’s house. She convinces Kabir that she can find a way to ingratiate herself into the Beig household, but Khalid is uncertain. She is crossing the limits of what she is to do.
And then, even worse news comes. Hidayat has died.
Iqbal accompanies Sehmat to the funeral. Parvez would have come too, but was unable to. She also meets secretly with Khalid. He allows her to stay longer in Kashmir, but she tells him that she is going back tomorrow. He tries to warn her against taking too big a risk by infiltrating Beig’s house, but she says that she will not let her father down.
This movie is based on Harinder S. Sikka’s 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, which was itself based on real events. Since much of the real events are classified, I would not really be able to judge how much of the movie was accurate. I have not read the book, either, so I cannot say how faithful it was. I will say, though, that Sikka was publicly upset at the people who made the movie for having changed certain key things and essentially cutting him out of the process. If I understand correctly, he even said that the movie turned his novel into Pakistani propaganda. That is quite the bold statement, and I do not understand that at all. But let me back up a bit.
This story takes place during the backdrop of the Bangladesh Liberation War. And given that that war started in late March of 1971 with a GENOCIDE by Pakistani forces, it would be very difficult for a movie about that to be pro-Pakistan. India opened its border with East Pakistan to allow in refugees. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted to aid East Pakistan as much as possible, even entering the war as soon as it started. While India had been supporting Bengali nationalists and maybe aiding in their attacks against supporters of West Pakistan, the country did not officially enter the war until early December, and put a stop to the whole thing within a couple of weeks. The war resulted in the establishment of Bangladesh, a humiliation for Pakistan, and a massive boon to India. This massive upset allowed India to take its place as a major player in the world’s stage. So, there is little doubt where this movie is going to go in terms of the big picture.
Sidenote: the movie makes a brief reference to the fact that the United States supported West Pakistan in this conflict; mostly because the Soviet Union supported East Pakistan and India. Sidenote to the sidenote: China, which was in the process of being somewhat friendly with the United States at this time, also supported West Pakistan, as did many Arab countries and Sri Lanka. Boy was there eggs on everyone’s face when scrappy India showed them all. Nixon and Kissinger really knew how to pick the winners, didn’t they?
Anyways, the premise of this movie is fairly standard. An innocent becomes, for some reason, recruited into the spy game and, after some mishaps and doubts, becomes rather adept at it. Aside from the silly introduction with the squirrel and the phone number, this movie plays it relatively straight. Setting it around the time of the 1971 war shows both the stakes and the context. India wanted to prove itself to the world, and eventually would. And this character of Sehmat would play an important role. While I am still ambivalent about the framing device of an older Nikhil giving a speech in the present day to troops on a ship regarding Sehmat, it does suggest that she was successful in her mission. So, the question is not whether she would succeed, but what she actually did, how she did it, and what it cost her.
WTF ASIA 128: A Sun (Taiwan: 2019, approx. 156 minutes)