'Gen Z was smitten more by Vicky Kaushal than Sam Manekshaw': Bollywood filmmaker Meghna Gulzar

Sam Bahadur director on how she views her craft and characters through her lens and on her love for Sam Manekshaw

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Thu 1 Feb 2024, 4:32 PM

It’s downtime for Meghna Gulzar. Three months after her well-loved movie Sam Bahadur, based on the life and times of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, one of the most celebrated war heroes in Indian history, the accolades are still pouring in. The film, which opened to largely positive reviews from critics and audiences, has got a new lease of life with its release on streaming platform ZEE5 Global recently.

Meghna has been lauded for her restrained and humane portrayal of themes like nationalism and masculinity at a time when unbridled aggression and action are ruling supreme at the box office. But does the filmmaker herself make a conscious decision to stay away from overt violence or does the empathetic treatment of her characters define her natural filmmaking style? In this exclusive chat with City Times, Meghna Gulzar answers this question and more.

Sam Bahadur has garnered considerable acclaim, both critically and commercially. what are your predominant emotions? A sense of relief or satisfaction?

Relief is typically associated with the lifting of a burden, but no film is ever a burden! So, I wouldn't characterise it as relief. Satisfaction, on the other hand, seems too conclusive a term for the creation process. My current sentiment is more like witnessing the various stages of a child's growth – from infancy to kindergarten, school, and college. With the film now entering a new phase on the ZEE5 Global streaming platform, receiving messages from viewers who have seen it with fresh eyes and expressing their love for the film, is immensely gratifying.

As a director, are you able to view your creation dispassionately when the journey of a film is over?

The film's journey is inherently human and emotional. For me, that is the journey which is always looked back at fondly with a lot of anecdotes and nostalgia. On the other hand, assessing the craft comes with time and distance. It's not an immediate reaction. Perhaps, five years later, I would have a different perspective than now. This continuous evolution shapes my perspective on the craft.

As of now, has Sam Bahadur turned out exactly the way you envisioned it?

Of course, otherwise I would not have finalled the film!

Was it a challenge to decide what information on Sam Manekshaw to add and what to leave out?

I wish I could have put in everything! But we decided to include events that connected one episode of his life to another and also tell them in a way where you could see the progressive character arc and growth in terms of his age, personality and beliefs. It was also important to add well known anecdotes about him, otherwise the audiences would feel cheated.

The scale and scope of Sam Bahadur is pretty huge. How does that impact the filmmaking approach?

See, you can’t take ‘true life’ incidents lightly, particularly when you want to make it authentic and accurate. In fiction, that isn’t difficult as you are giving cues to the story, characters and plot points. In films based on true life, all these elements are already present, you just have to put them together cinematically.

How did you bring the balance between the intimate moments of his life while there were huge political, history-making events going on around him?

My objective was to show the man behind the uniform. You had to see the husband, father and son. For instance, I know he loved his dogs and he always had an Labrador and Alsatian. That’s why I have shown him brushing his dogs' teeth. He would stand on his jeep and order all the jawans and officers around him to not move from their posts until he said so. But he would also go home and get fired by his wife and not say a word! It’s these qualities that made him so human.

How important is it for a filmmaker to fall in love with the characters they portray?

Well, it’s pretty evident that I was totally in love with Sam Manekshaw, isn’t it? (laughs). I have not tried to hide! Basically, when you have adulation for a character, your eyes start looking at it differently. I have had adulation and empathy for my characters in Raazi or Chhapaak too, but here there was a sense of reverence and affection. My heart and eyes will look at him differently and so will my camera.

Is the way a female filmmaker writes a role of a strong man different from a male filmmaker?

Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t filter storytelling through the lens of gender. I know it’s a frequent topic of conversation but my approach is profoundly human in stories, characters or script. I believe in sensitivity and empathy transcending gender when depicting characters. It’s the human lens which enables me to navigate the diverse narratives.

Many people also juxtaposed the character in Sam Bahadur to characters in Animal. What is your take on these comparisons?

I am aware of them. But why does everything have to be in a binary?

Isn't that the times we are living in?

Not necessary. Human beings are fluid and evolving. If not, we would be inanimate and not have a life. So why can you not have an alpha male like Sam Manekshaw and an alpha male with aggressive masculinity? It is up to us who we want to emulate or adulate.

In your films, you have a very journalistic approach to telling your stories but do your sensibilities differ when you make a biopic of a larger-than-life figure?

It’s because I was a journalism student! But for me, if it’s a true story, then the only sensibility that I need to consider is that of the character to the story I am telling. The second sensibility is my own. Tomorrow, if I make a film on a person who is of a criminal degenerative mind, then I will have that kind of sensibility. And I have shown both sides in a film like Raazi. The protagonist had a conscience and she did crumble but she also killed people.

What was the response of Gen Z to Sam Bahadur, a hero belonging to another era?

Gen Z was smitten more by Vicky Kaushal than Sam Manekshaw! At least that’s what I felt during the promotions. My son, along with his friends, all in the age-group of 13-15 watched Sam Manekshaw and loved it. They were inspired and for me, that was very fulfilling. I feel righteousness does not go out of line. Sam Manekshaw was such a righteous man that his appeal would cut across generations.


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