The author of Calling Sehmat, Harinder Sikka, recently spoke to News18.com about Alia Bhatt's new film Raazi. The film is based on his book. The author revealed how he heard about the unusual story of a Kashimiri Muslim girl (Sehmat) who was married off by her father to a Pakistani army officer so that she can be a spy for India in Pakistan. He recounted how the story influenced him to write a book. Sikka also revealed that the Gulzar sahab had rejected the book twice before his daughter Meghna Gulzar decided to adapt his book into a film.
Here are excerpts from the interview with Harinder Sikka.
How did you find out about Sehmat?
I went to the Kargil battlefield in 1999. At that point, I wanted to write from the soldiers' perspective and tell the world what the Indian Armed Forces were sacrificing. I was very angry about how we were allowing our enemies to sit over our heads in our own territories, and how the intelligentsia was failing us. I even called them all traitors. This annoyed an officer, who stood up and said, “Sir, not everybody is a traitor.” I replied, “Name one who isn’t,” and he, in a huff, said, “My mother (Sehmat) isn’t”.
I remembered the conversation. However, it wasn't until years later, that an incident reminded of this gentleman who had claimed his mother wasn't a traitor and I tried to get in touch with him. It was easy for me, being an armed forces personnel, to find him. From thereon, my research started on Sehmat (This wasn’t her original name, I changed it protect her identity) and all she did for India during the war of 1971. It took two good years of efforts, two visits to Pakistan, after which I was able to form a picture of the events that might have transpired in those years. From there, I started building my story.
How did you narrate the facts into fiction?
I took the book to Farooq Abdullah, who was an MP back then, and asked him to write something about it. He suggested that I should change the names of people mentioned in the book completely because that might put many families in trouble. It appeared to me from the way he was speaking that he knew the families I had written about. Therefore, I took another month to rehash the book, change names, write other code names, and that is how I titled the book, Calling Sehmat. Sehmat means agreement. In a way, there was an agreement that Sehmat had with me and herself that she wanted to die or pass away in life without being celebrated, or spoken about. Her message to me was very clear, which has become my motto in life as well. She said to me, "Khuda apko farz se nawaazein." (May the almighty reward you with duties.)
When was the book published?
The book was first released in 2008. I requested my mother to present the book on a stage that was given to me by Francis Mallory, the then high commissioner of South Africa to India. I wanted to correct many things and add to it. Therefore, the second edition came out when the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, honored the book by releasing it again onboard INS Vikrant, India's first naval aircraft carrier. Strangely, INS Vikrant was the same aircraft carrier which was saved from direct attack by Pakistani submarines, courtesy of the Pakistani intelligence failing and with inputs of some of our own agents. It turned out to be a phenomenal affair. The book also carried poetry by Sehmat that I had translated carefully so as to conceal her identity and yet keep the original essence of her words.
(The book is now being published by Penguin and will be available in the market as well as online soon.)
From writing a book to making a movie — what was the journey like?
I once requested Sehmat to allow me to make a film on her. The purpose was to tell the world that all Kashmiris are not traitors or terrorists. But, she said, 'don't make it on me, make it on Guru Nanak.' I was very surprised by her request. However, I realized when she came back to India, she was in deep depression because of all that she had done in Pakistan, as an ordinary woman (and a spy). She had blood on her hands. Then, as I have mentioned in my book, a saintly person cured her. That person must have given her spiritual insights. So, she looked at things from a different mind frame.
I did go on to make a film on Nanak titled Nanak Shah Fakir, which won three National Awards, including the prestigious Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.
What was your role in turning ‘Calling Sehmat’ into a film?
Raazi covers only a bit of Calling Sehmat. However, I have done extensive discussions with Meghna. I wanted to have an involvement because this book is not an ordinary book for me. It took me eight years, and I have taken plenty of risks to convert the story into a book.
Meghna must have asked me ten million questions about the book. In my mind, I was very sure, she would be the right person. Gulzar sahab turned down my book twice before Meghna decided to make a movie on it. So, I promised her in writing, that whoever be the producer, she shall direct the film. There was no interference from my side, except minor corrections which they were happy to do. It was Meghna's call completely as far as the movie was concerned as to what should be selected and what shouldn't.
Why was Alia Bhatt the right person to play Sehmat?
She is naturally talented, and a gifted girl. She has her heart at the right place. She have such simplicity in her eyes, and innocence, which are god gifted and I knew she would do a wonderful job.
What was Sehmat’s message to you?
Sehmat would always tell me not to bring home the money made from book or movie written on her. I have three children in Telangana, who lost their parents during farmers’ suicides. So, that money takes care of them. Likewise, there is a beautiful girl from Chondosi village called Gyannandini, who is a mountaineer par excellence. There is also a foundation run by Bibi Prakash Kaur, which adopts girls that are thrown out at birth. There are organizations that need this money, Sehmat had told me categorically, do not bring this money home. She is an angel for me, unka kaha suna sarmathe par (her wish is my command).