Sam Bahadur is too tepid, Sweetie!

Vicky Kaushal as Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in Sam Bahadur. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

To document one of India’s greatest soldiers (he even fought against the Japanese when they invaded Myanmar, then called Burma, in British India) is a Herculean task, no doubt. What a biopic on Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw deserved was, at least in the war sequences in which he was at his best, a gripping, edge-of-the-seat narration. The flow between his valorous exercises and his normal domestic life as husband and father and his many interactions with our leaders and especially his remarkable stand during Partition needed to be not just smooth but also riveting.

But that is eminently and very sorrowfully not the case! Meghna Gulzar, who at long last had learnt the commercial ropes in her last sterling outing, Raazi, goes back to her middle-of-the-road terrain here that was the bane of her last few movies before that (Chhapaak, Talvar). The audience is supreme is a maxim that marks all great directors and regrettably, this promise seems just a one-off case in her last film. Mind you, this is her fourth biopic and she should have demonstrated an ascending graph this time!

Not that she is a failure. As a director, she succeeds in extracting the finest performance of his career from Vicky Kaushal in the title-role, and clearly, that is also because of her script with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Shrivastava. The writers have clearly done extensive research on the soldier and his traits are brought out wonderfully, like his immense sense of humor and inherent mischief, his resolute determination to slash political red-tape and indecisiveness and his sheer love for the humblest army-man. This last is tellingly demonstrated in that wonderful sequence in the bar where he scathingly yet subtly rebukes an arrogant bureaucrat who treats a soldier like a bartender. Another good sequence is his reply to close friend Yahya Khan (later Pakistan’s dictator) at the time of Partition about why he chooses India rather than that country.

The army ambience, the war atmosphere and the small illustrations of how Sam’s wife, Silloo (well enacted by the redoubtable Sanya Malhotra), understands her husband’s mind at all times is wonderfully brought out. I also liked the way the forthright Sam tackles politicians who, so to speak, either come in his way at times or really do not know the situation as well as the sharp Sam does.

As said above, this is Vicky’s best, superseding his turns in URI—The Surgical Strike and Sardar Udham, his earlier forays into real, patriotic stories. I apologize for not including the ridiculous and supposedly patriotic misadventure, The Great Indian Family, here!

What goes wrong with this film is simply the fact that, despite a length of almost 170 minutes, it only emerges as a tepid tribute to the man and is almost anecdotal in its lack of narrative flow. From one point of his life to another is alright, but a linking thread was a must between the material chosen. A film like this also needed much more drama, if not culled from real life then judiciously fictionalized. For example, Manekshaw’s reply to the Defense Minister when asked what he thought about his chief is one of the telling highlights of his illustrious life, but in the way it is shown, it becomes just another passing brief interaction with a politician.

Fatima Sana Shaikh makes for a decent Indira Gandhi, but Neeraj Kabi is a shade disappointing as Nehru. No one else has a significant role, except Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub as Yahya Khan and he does a good job.

Manekshaw had this endearing habit of calling many people “Sweetie!” as a gender-neutral way of address. And all I can add is that dear filmmakers, the film is too lukewarm as a document on one of India’s finest soldiers, sweeties!

Rating:*** (Almost)

RSVP presents Sam Bahadur Produced by: Ronnie Screwvala, Directed by: Meghna Gulzar, Written by: Bhavani Iyer, Shantanu Shrivastava & Meghna Gulzar Music: Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy Starring: Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Neeraj Kabi, Edward Sonnenblick, Govind Namdeo, Anjjan Shrivastava. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Naiyo Ishida, Jaskaran Singh Gandhi, Bobby Arora, Rajiv Kachroo, Ed Robinson, Jeffrey Goldberg, Shreas Pardiwala, Krishnakant Singh Bundela, Keiichi Ando, Keita Arai, Rohan Verma, Upen Chauhan, Prajesh Kashyap & others




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