Sam Bahadur movie review: Vicky Kaushal is fabulous in a ‘meh’ film

Sincere and elegant but also bland and insipid, Sam Bahadur could and should have been much better than what it is

By Lekha Menon

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Published: Sun 3 Dec 2023, 1:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 3 Dec 2023, 2:28 PM

Here’s the harsh truth: Bollywood does not know how to make biopics. A biopic is supposed to delve deep into the psyche of a famous (or infamous!) personality, presenting known facts and unknown facets about them, giving you an understanding of what made them so unique.

Bollywood disagrees.

Most Hindi biopics have been utter disappointments primarily due to the makers’ unwillingness to explore any shade of their subject than white. Be it films based on the lives of sportspersons (Azhar, Mary Kom, MS Dhoni) or politicians (Thalaivi), or actors (Sanju), the tendency is to turn them into hagiographic embodiments of perfection, than flesh and blood human beings who make mistakes, have fears or have shades of grey. The result is that these films appear superfluous and shallow, adding no new insights or giving no new knowledge that we, the viewer, did not already know.

Sam Bahadur joins this unfortunate list.

Meghna Gulzar’s latest film is a tribute to one of India’s greatest soldiers – Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw. Stories around Manekshaw, who played a pivotal role in the 1971 war with Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, abound. His steely determination and grit, courage in standing up to politicians and indomitable spirit are stuff that urban war legends are made of. Of particular fascination is his equation with the late Indira Gandhi, the charismatic former Prime Minister of India as the duo made a formidable pair who ultimately took tough decisions that led India to victory in the 1971 encounter.

With such rich material and the historical and political references, a biopic of this colourful Parsi army general should have made for a compelling watch. Alas! Meghna Gulzar, Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Shrivastava’s flat writing turn this film into yet another also-ran in the list of biopics. It’s nice but just not interesting.

Sam Bahadur’s story is narrated in a linear fashion, with one achievement, one posting, and one conflict following the other. The sincerity is evident but it fails to evoke any emotion; it’s almost akin to reading a high school text book on a famous personality. Seriously, a Google search would reveal more!

What were the challenges Manekshaw faced on the field? How did he confront the inevitable politics at work (a facet the makers merely skim through)? Did he have any fears about going into war? We don’t even know much about his personal tastes and life as a family man. Even his famous quirk of calling everyone, including the Prime Minister, ‘sweetie’ or ‘sweetheart’ seems forced rather than a natural trait of a charmer. Just what is the man beyond the surface? The film doesn’t tell you.

The second flaw is that in its desire to paint Manekshaw as a larger-than-life hero, every other character gets the short shrift. Figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Yahya Khan (former Pakistan President) are treated with very broad brushstrokes robbing them of any colour, depth or complexity, when the politics of that era, just like any other time in history, is complex and intriguing.

The most disappointing is the portrayal of Manekshaw’s relationship with Indira Gandhi –a rather crucial part of his eventful career. The General was irreverent towards her but also was a true advisor and confidant. Sam Bahadur does not explore this holistically. There is a hint that Sam’s wife Pilloo (a sweet but underwhelming Sanya Malhotra) did not particularly fancy Mrs Gandhi but what could have been a very interesting aspect to unpeel, is just brushed aside with a few looks here and there. It does not help that Fatima Sana Sheikh’s performance as Indira Gandhi is listless and cannot convey the magnetism of the leader.

Manekshaw’s dynamics with Yahya Khan (played by Mohd. Zeeshan Ayub), once his colleague and friend, who later becomes the President of the country he has to go to war with, was another chapter that was ripe with possibilities but does not get any special attention.

This is not to say the film is devoid of merits. Gulzar and her writers deserve all the kudos for making a war drama about a war hero without plumbing into jingoism or painting a terrible picture of the enemy. The facts are represented as they should be – as historical facts. The production design is rich, the cinematography is eye-catching and the attention to detail to the Parsi way of life is worth appreciating. There is a certain gentleness and finesse to the proceedings, much like the man they are talking about.

Of course, Gulzar is lucky to have Vicky Kaushal as her lead. The Sardar Uddham Singh star proves once again he is one of the most versatile actors of his generation. The loopy body language, the twinkle in his eyes and confidence in gait show that he has embodied the spirit of Sam Manekshaw. As you ease into Vicky as the celebrated General, it’s impossible to recognise it was the same actor who played an average bloke in The Great Indian Family a few weeks ago. Perhaps a better written role could have elevated his performance further.

Ultimately Sam Bahadur strikes as that pretty looking dish, made with a lot of love for the main ingredient but ultimately gets the balance wrong. It tastes like an undercooked Dhansak when it should have been a flavourful Salli Boti. And that just doesn’t cut it sweetie!

Sam Bahadur

Director: Meghna Gulzar

Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh

Stars: 2.5/5

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