December 1, 2023
Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Neeraj Kabi, Govind Namdev
Hindi with some English
How do you make a film on a national icon whose image of coolth in his lifetime was built not solely on extreme courage and brilliant war-time strategising, nor even just his sense of humour and forthrightness, but also on widely disseminated accounts of his sexist condescension towards a prominent woman politician? The task is especially challenging when the man in question is Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, a beloved Army Chief credited with India’s win in the 1971 war against Pakistan that led to the formation of Bangladesh.
A story that Manekshaw addressed the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “sweetie” (She: Are you ready to go to war? He: I am always ready, sweetie) has assumed legendary proportions over time, with some fans repeating it as proof of his hipness and daring, while others have sought to deny it, and still others dismiss criticism of him by taking the position that women these days make much ado about nothing. Either way, the anecdote is an intrinsic part of the Manekshaw legend, and a truthful film about him cannot sweep it under a carpet. Would it be wisest for such a film to normalise sexism, or else to examine the subject through a critical, analytical lens even at the risk of irking Manekshaw’s adoring admirers?The dilemma is apparent in Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur that the director has co-written with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Srivastava, and is just one of the weak spots in an oddly pallid, superficial biopic.
(Note: Manekshaw’s daughter has been quoted in the press this week praising the film after seeing two previews. This should put to rest the speculation about whether the “sweetie” saga is true.)
Like most human beings, Sam Manekshaw was not easily definable. That patronising line to Gandhi is just a fraction of the abundant lore surrounding him, supplemented in Sam Bahadur by another not-so-well-known conversation: Manekshaw in the film tells Mrs G during an official, one-on-one meeting that she can always rest her worried head on his shoulders. Ugh!
Since the film has not laid any ground for that exchange by suggesting a close friendship between them, his words are nothing less than an instance of over-familiarity and superciliousness that women at workplaces, including women leaders, are acquainted with. This is the same Manekshaw though who is known to have, and shown to have, unequivocally ordered his troops not to harm Bangladeshi women after India’s victory against Pakistan in 1971. To say he was complex, therefore, is an understatement, but Sam Bahadur’s script merely flits over various aspects of his personality and struggles to weave them into a comprehensible, relatable, engaging whole.
The writers appear not to have come to terms with the troubling eternal reality that contradictory qualities often co-exist within the same person. Instead, in an ostensible bid to justify the unpalatable, they let on that “sweetie” was Manekshaw’s mode of address not just for India’s first woman PM, but for others too, both male and female. Err, talking down to another person does not become okay just because women are not the only ones at the receiving end. This was perhaps an opportunity to scrutinise society’s willingness to indulge distasteful conduct by men in power. Sadly, Sam Bahadur lacks the subtlety to handle this delicate point while simultaneously acknowledging Manekshaw’s incredible achievements.
The film is painfully conscious that its central figure was a giant among men. It declares that he was great, and expects us to believe it because it says so, but fails to distil the essence of who he was and why. In fact, Sam Bahadur is so acutely aware of his stature in Indian history, that initially it underlines a marginal brainwave as though it was an act of unprecedented genius. Later, when Manekshaw is accused of being anti-national, the charge is shown quickly collapsing under the weight of his grandiose pronouncements – this is another opportunity lost, if you consider the parallels with contemporary India, but for that resonance to be conveyed, a film would have to rise above the broad brush strokes that Sam Bahadur favours over nuance and detail.
The script jumps from one milestone in Manekshaw’s personal and professional journey to the next to the next to the next – from his marriage to his triumphs at various postings in the Army before and after Independence, internecine politics, his appointment as chief, 1971, his elevation to the position of India’s first field marshal, and finally, retirement – without getting to the beating heart of the celebrated soldier. It thus comes across as a listing of historical events rather than an in-depth exploration of the person behind the larger-than-life persona.
If the goal was to offer a primer to students brushing up on their GK before a quiz, Sam Bahadur has served its purpose. As a biopic though, it is shallow.
The portrayal of Manekshaw’s relationship with his wife exemplifies the follies of the script in its entirety. They meet at a party, he is smitten at first sight, he says clever-sounding things, they gaze at each other through a long, moony song as they dance, we gather that they fall in love as that number plays at the party since that’s the purpose served by such musical interludes in Hindi films that feature a ‘heroine’ as a glamorous aside…cut to her in the bedroom of their home gazing at their sleeping child. That is literally how abrupt it is. That the director of the exemplary Raazi and Talvar would deliver a film this poorly structured and this lightweight is surprising.
Mrs Manekshaw, Silloo, gets a defining trait: an inexplicable animosity towards Indira Gandhi even before meeting her. The film implies that Silloo was insecure about Gandhi for no given reason, obviously playing into the stereotype that women don’t like attractive women. Eye roll! The antagonism results in some of Sam Bahadur’s silliest, unfunniest-albeit-meant-to-be-funny moments. It is disappointing that Mses Gulzar and Iyer, who co-wrote Raazi, opted to trivialise women in this film, first by giving an Army wife zero substance beyond her jealousy towards another woman, then compounding that diversion with a flash of what could be either innuendo or a genuine misunderstanding in at least one telephone conversation – presumably designed for comical effect – between Gandhi and Manekshaw. Worse, when he is shown patronising her, she has no reaction. Neither shock, nor confusion about how to react, neither anger, nor amusement.
Are the writers implying that Gandhi was attracted to Manekshaw because he was a hottie? Can’t say for sure, but they’re certainly implying something. It is as if they could not fathom a normal working relationship between a good-looking, high-profile woman and man.
No amount of contrived humour, no surface energy, no acting swag or rambunctious patriotic song – all of which we get here – can compensate for this passionless narrative.
Not unexpectedly then, Vicky Kaushal’s performance as Manekshaw is as slight as the script. In Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham (2021), Kaushal seemed to grasp the freedom fighter Udham Singh’s emotions and motivations. Here, he effectively captures Manekshaw’s posture, gait, intonation and the twinkle in his eye, but never gets past his skin. The fact that Manekshaw had a big personality is no excuse. For a recent example of an actor steering an audience beyond a real-life character’s overwhelming exteriority and flamboyance, Kaushal and the writers of Sam Bahadur would have done well to reference Ranveer Singh’s brilliant, non-caricaturish, immersive turn as the flashy former Indian cricketer Kapil Dev in Kabir Khan’s well-written 83.
The talented Sanya Malhotra (Dangal, Pagglait, Kathal) is wasted in Sam Bahadur, cast as an insipid Silloo. So is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who is unrecognisable after a while as Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan. Fatima Sana Shaikh delivers a stolid, dull Gandhi.
The film is too much in awe of Manekshaw and too determined to lionise him to do justice to the other stalwarts on screen. Gandhi here, for instance, is nothing like the charismatic woman we saw in the public realm in reality, whose steely will earned her the nickname “Iron Lady of India”.
Still, Sam Bahadur is not without qualities to recommend. The scenes of military action, for one, are captivating. In a decade when patriotism and even the national anthem have been weaponised by the Right, and Hindi cinema is bowing to prevailing winds by turning accounts of Indian heroes and their achievements into vehicles for chest-thumping desh prem, hatred of Pakistan and the stereotyping of India’s own religious minorities, this film is different. Sam Bahadur representspatriotism, not chauvinism. Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s song Badhte Chalo that runs through the 1971 war in the film is stirring, not jingoistic. This is not Akshay Kumar style aggressive nationalism, nor is it akin to the more polished propaganda of Uri: The Surgical Strike that Kaushal himself starred in. This is Meghna Gulzar style love for the country. This is cinema, not a war cry.
Even when Sam Bahadur presents a broken Jawaharlal Nehru with Sardar Patel during the 1962 India-China debacle, it stops short of the right-wing ecosystem’s favourite trope that Nehru was a weakling and Patel the strong-willed one in the Cabinet. Their scenes are as broadly written as everything else in the film, nevertheless they are a marked contrast to the comically cowardly Nehru and gigantic Patel in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1994) and in the current dominant discourse.
Ultimately though, anything that Sam Bahadur gets right is overshadowed by its sketchy scripting and bombast sans soul in the protagonist’s speech, demeanour and actions. The film tells us Manekshaw tended to downplay his troubles with the signature line “I’m okay”. Okay is not good. Okay is not great. Okay is just okay. Like the film. Sam Bahadur is okay, I guess. Just okay.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 2
Poster courtesy: IMDB