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Sam Bahadur: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic

This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Here: Meghna Gulzar's Sam Bahadur.

Sam Bahadur: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic
Sam Bahadur Movie Review: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic

Last Updated: 03.38 PM, Dec 02, 2023


IN Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur, there is a scene where Vicky Kaushal addresses a group of men. “Sam is here,” he combatively reassures his battalion and stomps off from the frame. As he exits, his shoulders are a little slouched, his stomach is tucked in. His gait has transformed as though the feet — trained to march — can only walk to a beat. This is followed by the listeners, the disillusioned Indian officers at the China border, looking rejuvenated. One of them even says aloud, “This is the commander we needed, who tells us what to do.” The moment is so blatant in subtext that it dispels the charm of the performance we had just witnessed.

Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur is the latest addition to the increasing list of Hindi films on Indian war heroes. It is a sprawling biopic on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw that traverses four decades of his life (from the 1930s to the ‘70s, when he retired from the services) but can be distilled to an uncritical portrait of his persona. At all times, the film is in awe of its protagonist; it assigns him no conflict, much less any flaws. Everyone around him adjusts. Thus, he gets a wife whose unrestrained support not once impinges on resentment for staying alone through most of their marriage; he is surrounded by colleagues who are only amenable and rally for him; he talks over politicians and the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He comes up with solutions. He is never questioned. In one rare instance, when charges of being an anti-national are levelled against him, all it requires is for Sam to defend himself with a little force. They are immediately squashed. Sam is unlike anyone. He walks on air.

Sam Bahadur Movie Review: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic
Sam Bahadur Movie Review: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic

This is a Hindi film problem. Whenever a story is written around an exalted persona, the narrative tends to become ornamental and diminishes everything else. The tone is infected with retrospect-reverence. In Sam Bahadur, Sam is always the hero. His failings are non-existent — harmless flirting before marriage, gentle indiscipline and indecisiveness at home — which lend no interiority to the person. The character is always distant from us as well as from the others in the film. He is crowd-pleasing even when he is alone. In one scene he tells a character to observe him and learn. Unsurprisingly, it unfolds in a room full of people.

Due to this or because of it, the screenplay is as safe as cardboard. Written by Gulzar, Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Shrivastava, the film unfolds more like a Wikipedia entry, taking care to only highlight certain incidents. Thus, World War II finds a mention, conflicts in Kashmir and Tezpur are pencilled in. Jawaharlal Nehru (Neeraj Kabi) appears briefly before the reins are passed on to his daughter. It is all too self-contained, too neat. Sam Bahadur is so committed to not rattling history that the commitment ties it down.

The events finally conclude in 1971 when India was an ally and helped Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) gain independence from Pakistan. The film fills the proceedings with archival footage, diluting all sense of urgency. The tediousness is compounded by the fact that in the last three months, there have been at least two Hindi films that have explored the exact same historical time — Shyam Benegal’s Mujib and Raja Krishna Menon’s Pippa. Both used the 1971 horror as a smokescreen to underline the greatness of India and the brutality of Pakistan. Gulzar, who dared to humanise the neighbouring country in Raazi (2018), reiterates this outlook.

Sam Bahadur Movie Review: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic
Sam Bahadur Movie Review: Vicky Kaushal Stands Tall In This Crumbling Biopic

It makes for a sad sight. In one audacious stroke, the outing suggests a friendship between Sam Manekshaw and Yahya Khan, the Pakistani officer who played a key role in the 1971 war. In colonial India, both belonged to one country and fought for it. Things changed after Partition (which the film glosses over with such alacrity like it never happened). In spite of the role he played in history, the character barely exists and by the end, he is reduced to a caricature who is prone to drinking while looking at himself in the mirror. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is hardly recognisable under the layers of prosthetics and is given nothing to work with.

He is not the only one to suffer such a fate. Sanya Malhotra, as Sam’s wife, Silloo, is restricted to drinking tea at the table and giving pep talks to her husband. She hardly registers as a presence. The character is so decoratively written that it does not warrant a performer of her calibre. The film also implies that Silloo was jealous over Indira Gandhi and her morning calls to her husband. The treatment of this playful equation is heavy-handed and borders on being unnecessarily comic. There is a moment when Gandhi (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh) calls Sam Manekshaw for some work but prefaces it with what he is wearing. Shaikh is an unusual choice for Gandhi. The actor alters her voice a bit and lends a lightness to the portrayal, which is a departure from the imposing way Gandhi has come to be depicted of late in Hindi films.

But it is only Kaushal who stands tall. If the film can insist that Sam Manekshaw towered above everyone else with conviction it is because the actor essaying the role does. It is a transformative portrayal that is equal parts impressive and moving. Kaushal walks differently, talks in an accented way, juts out his lower lip and rests his hands on someone like the act was both careful and instinctive. Like he has seen Manekshaw’s soul. It is a bravura performance that is so campy and excessive that it is at odds with the curated restraint of the film.

Kaushal is also an extremely watchable performer. He makes you root for him even when he is playing a middle-class miser or the bruised best friend. His act grows on you later but in the moment it is difficult to look away from him. There is versatility there but there is also likeability. Nothing changes here, even himself. The one appearing on screen has no semblance of the actor we know. It is Sam Manekshaw, walking hurriedly and inspecting the faces of his cadres. Your eyes follow him but the film fails to keep up.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of OTTplay. The author is solely responsible for any claims arising out of the content of this column.)

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