Creating a biopic demands a delicate equilibrium between artistic interpretation and historical accuracy, where filmmakers and actors not only grapple with the arduous task of showcasing a significant portion of a person’s life within a limited runtime, but can also run the risk of oversimplifying crucial life events.
In Sam Bahadur, all set to release on November 30 in the UAE cinemas, actor Vicky Kaushal — known for his riveting performances in National Award-winning films such as Uri: The Surgical Strike and Sardar Udham — is taking this mammoth task head-on alongside filmmaker Meghna Gulzar, to tell the lesser-known tale of a legendary figure in the history of the Indian military. Sam Manekshaw (full name: Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw), who served as the Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, played a crucial role in India’s victory with a military acumen that garnered nation-wide applause.
On his recent visit to the Khaleej Times office in Dubai — which he reveals was his first real outing upon landing in the city — Vicky Kaushal talks about his return to the Indian ‘army-verse’ after Uri in 2019, but this time, through the lens of Manekshaw, the need to draw boundaries when playing real-life personalities, and the toughest characteristic to imbibe from Manekshaw’s steadfast life. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Khaleej Times: Welcome to Dubai. What have you been up to in the city?
Vicky Kaushal: Thank you. Not been up to much yet, the press conference and interviews have all been in the hotel. This is my first real outing in the city. I'm thrilled to visit Khaleej Times office, and I must add, it's a very impressive office space.
KT: What's your favourite hangout spot in the city?
VK: Sounds cliche, but I love shopping in Dubai. I’m not a shopaholic, but there’s something about Dubai Mall. It’s just very difficult to get out of there. I love the expanse of it and the overall experience. It's very unique.
KT: Speaking of unique experiences, when one looks at the trailer for Sam Bahadur, it’s very hard to find any traces of Vicky Kaushal in there. You’ve deconstructed your demeanour, tonality, body language, and morphed into this whole other personality. How did you find Sam Manekshaw within you?
VK: To be very honest, it wouldn't have been possible without the guidance of Meghna Gulzar. She has done so much research for this part, it's unbelievable. By the time I joined her, which was three months before the shoot, she had everything sorted for me on the table — pictures, videos, books — anything on Sam Manekshaw sir, was available to me.
The tricky part was that all his videos and interviews were post-retirement when he was 75+ years old. In the film, we’re covering 40 years of his service in the army, which goes from when he was 20 to when he was 60. So, I did not have any visual reference for how he was like in those years. We had to rely a lot on the images, chats with his family — his grandson, Jehan Manekshaw, his daughter, Maja Daruwala. It was a very stimulating experience for me as an actor — a big challenge, which made me nervous every day during prep and shoot.
KT: What was the toughest characteristic to imbibe from Sam Manekshaw?
VK: It was his inherent flamboyance. There's one thing about taking on the body language, the tonality with which he would speak, but the inherent flamboyance and the spirit he had was just the most challenging aspect to imbibe. That swagger, you can't put that on. You literally have to cultivate that confidence inside you. Now, in retrospect, I have no clue how I managed to do that. Let’s see, I could be feeling a lot of things but the audience has to feel the same.
KT: You’ve done a fair bit of work with biopics in Sardar Udham, and then Uri, which was also inspired by real-life events. What is it that draws you towards telling real-life stories?
VK: First and foremost, more than an actor, as an audience member, I do get attracted towards stories that are rooted in real-life and that educate me and entertain me about real heroes from my motherland. As an actor, that's one way where I can add some meaning to my work where it's not just entertainment, but there’s also some sort of education through the content. There are so many heroic stories hidden in the country, which we don't even know of and we continue to reap the benefits of. Even two generations after Sam Manekshaw sir’s service, we're still reaping the benefits as a nation. So, it's important for such stories to come out for the youth of today to know that men like him have existed and this is the kind of service they've done for the country.
KT: What is the biggest challenge in portraying real-life figures as an actor?
VK: You absolutely have to set boundaries in place when you're doing a biopic because it's a massive responsibility, and especially if it's a biopic of an Indian Army officer — and the most decorated one — it's a huge responsibility. You can't fool around with that; you can't be frivolous. And that goes for every department, not just the actor, the director, the costumes, the production designer — everybody has to be authentic with their work. It’s only when the authenticity is respected in every department that the film in totality can look authentic.
KT: How did you gather the bravery to showcase the journey of one of the bravest men in Indian history?
VK: Strangely, through jazz music. When I met his family, I got to know he was really fond of jazz music. And that just became a very meditative process for me and I started enjoying it so much. I remember every day before going on set, I would just sit there and listen to jazz music, which was very new for me and I’d tell myself that this is Sam; whosoever is going to step out of this van, is going to be Sam.
KT: What is your biggest takeaway from living Sam Manekshaw’s life through this movie?
VK: My biggest takeaway from his life is his clarity of thought. Maybe that was the thing that I needed in my life. There are many occasions when you come into those crossroads where you’re confused about which way to go. Sometimes you get into a state of limbo, where you're not able to decide what to do next. But Sam Mankeshaw sir was this person who always believed that if you want to be a leader, you have to make decisions. Even if it turns out to be the wrong decision, you must own up to that decision and learn from it. So, I would be in situations where I would genuinely ask myself, ‘What would Sam have done?’
KT: What’s next for Vicky Kaushal?
VK: After this, there's a full-blown comedy film coming up in February! It's a film by Dharma Productions. And currently, I’m shooting for a period action film, which will come out sometime at the end of next year.
KT: Switching between these kinds of roles and genres, does it not give you an identity crisis at all?
VK: (laughs) That's one part of my job that I absolutely love. Every few months, I get to understand the perspective of a new human being and live life through that perspective. That's one of the most beautiful things about this profession.
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