Director Meghna Gulzar is, without doubt, someone with good taste. Even in her relatively minor works, Gulzar appears earnest, curious and shows remarkable empathy for her characters – barely the norm in mainstream films. Like in Raazi (2018), she made [what felt like] a radical choice to paint Pakistani soldiers as mere cogs, rather than blood-thirsty savages who start their day by praying for Hindustan ki barbaadi (India’s destruction). The stereotypical portrait of Pakistanis was something most of Gulzar’s colleagues were more than happy to indulge in at the time, given how it proved more lucrative. And yet, the Alia Bhatt-starrer turned out to be a success, showcasing a rare instance of Gulzar’s sincerity being rewarded, also anchoring it as a foundational value in her films. Hence, what is most baffling about Sam Bahadur is the many adjectives it throws at its protagonist – making them feel empty and some of the key storytelling choices feeling reverse-engineered.
Take the scene, when Sam Manekshaw (Vicky Kaushal) is being wheeled in for an operation after being shot several times by a Japanese soldier. A British doctor looks at Manekshaw’s body. “What happened to you?” he asks, only to get a swift response, “Got kicked by a mule.” The doctor laughs and says, “Anyone with a sense of humour is worth saving.” It’s a perfectly fine anecdote, but the scene feels awkwardly performed between the two. In the first scene of the film, the parents of a baby with gleaming eyes (Manekshaw) are trying to debate what they should name him. Cyrus or something else? I wouldn’t mind reading this anecdote, but again in the visual medium, the scene feels too staged.
The screenplay (co-written by Meghna Gulzar, Shantanu Srivastava and Bhavani Iyer) seems satisfied in piecing together stray vignettes to tell a birth-to-death life story of India’s first Field Marshal – Sam Manekshaw, the connective tissue between the vignettes feeling perfunctory at best. It might not be entirely Gulzar’s fault though, given how the nature of the war film has changed in the past decade and the ever-increasing paranoia around biopics that are scared to do little else than praise their subjects. At this point, most Bollywood biopics should be titled “[insert name]’s greatest hits”; so cursory is the intent to investigate a person’s complex legacy.
Barring Vicky Kaushal, who brings a bravura physicality to the titular part, Sam Bahadur is a biopic so reverential in its treatment that it doesn’t even dare fiddle with the chronology of Manekshaw’s rise in the army. The film begins with his days as a Gentleman Cadet at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, his meet-cute with wife Silloo (Sanya Malhotra), his years spent in the British Indian army in the early 1940s, his proximity to Yahya Khan (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub) – who goes on to become a future adversary during the 1971 Indo-Pak war – and then concludes with his becoming the first Field Marshal of the Indian army, a mere two weeks before his retirement in 1973.
Sam Bahadur is a painfully ‘safe’ film that is in much awe of its protagonist, to the point that it reaffirms the impact of his every monologue, by cutting to the faces of those listening to him with their jaws on the floor. This includes officers investigating Manekshaw in an internal inquiry, propped up by a jealous superior, where he’s tried as an ‘anti-national’. It’s almost like she’s telling the audience how to feel – a surprising choice by a filmmaker of Gulzar’s calibre.
Kaushal, whose last blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) coincidentally also saw him play an army officer on screen, mimics Manekshaw’s stooped posture and employs his precise manner of speaking. As archival footage seems to suggest, Manekshaw’s words sounded like a machine gun. There were few pauses, he rarely stuttered in interviews, and there seemed to be an other-worldly conviction in the way he conducted himself. Kaushal does a splendid job of birthing a character that skirts the lines of a real-life impression and a 50s ‘hero’ with go-for-broke swagger. However, like in Uri, Kaushal’s commitment is never reciprocated by Gulzar’s film.
Gulzar hints at the hurt of partition with a spectacular line delivered by Ayyub’s Yahya Khan, “The British offered us khichdi, and then gave us the choice to separate the rice and lentils for ourselves.”
The portrayal of the secondary characters is fairly one-note: Nehru (Neeraj Kabi) is shown as a leader with failing health, supple wrists and a defeatist attitude (a portrait the current govt could get behind), Indira Gandhi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) as a stoic stateswoman – aggressive compared to her father, and a worthy adversary to Manekshaw’s surefire way of operating. Ayyub’s Yahya Khan is buried under layers of prosthetic make-up, but his arc from a sentimental, whiskey-loving army man to an orchestrator of cold-blooded genocide is only dealt with in bullet points. Sanya Malhotra, playing Silloo – Manekshaw’s supportive, exasperated wife – gets even less to do here than she did earlier this year in Jawan. It’s a credit to the radiance of actors like Sheikh and Malhotra that such ‘nothing’ parts even register.
The film never asks the most rudimentary questions of a man with a larger-than-life stature: did Sam Manekshaw, the most self-assured man (as suggested in the film) ever doubt himself? Was he ever tongue-tied by something he witnessed? What prompted his love for the army – was it just the discipline? What does a filmmaker like Gulzar think of the machismo championed by the likes of Manekshaw – he once sent bangles to a regiment that chose self-preservation, over possible martyrdom? The film touches upon him as a benevolent general, who explicitly ordered his soldiers to treat other soldiers and women with respect, how he was an early advocate for a dignified pension scheme for members of the armed forces. They feel like trivia, without necessarily taking us inside Manekshaw’s head. Where did he get his conviction from? Was it just instinct or did he see things differently? What prompted his radical, fearless way of thinking – especially when being conservative and thrifty was being inculcated to the nation at large? Was it his upper-class, convent-educated upbringing?
Sam Bahadur’s biggest tragedy is seeing Meghna Gulzar trying to salvage a decent film amidst circumstances significantly out of her control. Let’s zoom out for a bit: she’s trying to make a ‘hit’ film on the army at a time when the armed forces have become a handy plaything in the hands of politicians. So, even though she’s trying to make a film about good, old-fashioned patriotism – something that probably existed during Manekshaw’s time – the rhetoric of the film seems like it’s trying to appeal to the audience who lapped up Uri (both films produced by Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP).
Gulzar’s studied, compassionate ways are at odds with a market that demands New India’s brashness and chest-thumping. The Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy songs – ‘Badhte Chalo’ and ‘Rabb Ka Bandah Hai Yeh’ – both of which appear in the film’s last hour, feel force-fitted in a film that has suddenly realised that it also needs to serve as military propaganda. As a result, it’s neither here, nor there. I wonder if Sam Manekshaw would’ve approved of such half-measures.