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'Sam Bahadur' movie review: Played it too straight, Sam? 

Updated on: 01 December,2023 11:17 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

'Sam Bahadur' movie review: What the film does best, or at best, is take you through times that were changing. And how things don’t change, really

'Sam Bahadur' movie review: Played it too straight, Sam? 

Still from Sam Bahadur

Film: Sam Bahadur 
Director: Meghna Gulzar
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Sanya Malhotra 
U/A: Biography, Drama 
Critic’s Rating: 3/5

You must bear in mind, as an audience, that while this is the biopic on arguably India’s greatest war hero, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (1914-2018), Sam Bahadur is not exactly the epic war movie.

It’s far more a film on India’s political history, interspersed with footage from actual news reels, that touched Manekshaw’s external life, even while he wasn’t wholly instrumental to it. But these were his active years, both as soldier and gentleman.

And it was a long and fruitful life, no doubt—gallantry apart, as well. Which is my semi-issue with memoirs/autobiographies, in general. That is, they begin from the beginning—if that makes any sense!

As in, starting out with the early years, before you finally get to the bottom of why we knew/loved them, which is when they were at the top, essentially.
This is also a reason I often skip the first few chapters of many autobiographies that detail childhood, adolescence, etc. They’re most important to the author, hardly as much to the reader. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t exist. Ought to be structured differently.

Sam Bahadur is altogether chronological, taking the viewer across the neatly labelled years of Manekshaw’s service: 1933 onwards, to 1942 (he fought WWII), multiple months of ’47, ’59, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’66…

Something tells me, and maybe I’m entirely mistaken here, the film has also been shot chronologically, from the perspective of the lead character, that is. Quite frankly, on the face of it, actor Vicky Kaushal is the last person I’d imagine as playing Manekshaw.

And my apprehensions didn’t seem particularly unfounded in the opening sequences, when he walks in as a young gentleman cadet, playing the fool in the military academy, and playing the field outside it.

It’s only as the film progresses, you see Kaushal sufficiently wearing off, and Manekshaw coming into his own, in his body language, the ease of his tone—in a way that’s magical, and isn’t that what movies are!

Kaushal must earn all the plaudits for this. As he will. The credit must go equally to the director, Meghna Gulzar, for taking the leap of faith.
Gulzar’s last film, Chhapaak (2020), similarly, had the unlikely actor Deepika Padukone transform into an acid-attack survivor. It was a film that many stayed away from, mainly for its deeply grim theme: the gruesomeness of a lived experience. It deserved the critical push. Sam Bahadur doesn’t as much.

It’s already the story of a man with swag enough to famously call the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Sweety, and get away with it. Before, of course, winning for India, the 1971 Bangladesh War, which is how East Pakistan got away from Pakistan itself.

Manekshaw was the general leading the Indian Army. He was anointed India’s first Field Marshal for it, having already picked up Padma Bhushan before that. You can’t argue with his accomplishments. Only, that generals don’t usually fight wars on the ground.

Which is why, you’ll notice, the sequence detailing the storming of the Dhaka University by Pak Army—which was one of the triggers of the war—is possibly as long as the 1971 war scenes itself.

We’ve been though details of the Bangladesh side of this lead-up to the war, lately, with Shyam Benegal’s biopic Mujib (2023), and actual attacks on the ground/front, equally recently, with Raja Krishna Menon’s Pippa (2023).

Manekshaw’s life still encompassed so much more. What’s the most interesting bit I gleaned from this biopic? I say gleaned, because it could have been so much more central, rather than pushed into the chronology.

That the Pak military dictator, Yahya Khan, who called for the war, with Manekshaw at the opposite end, were close friends once. It’s from a time (before independence) when the British, Indian and Pak Army were one, of course.

Are there other interesting conflicts in Manekshaw’s life? Through the film, the sense you get is he couldn’t suffer netas/babus, namely fools, in matters of the military.

The disdain was mutual. Would he get into trouble for it? Regularly. Did he have PM Gandhi’s sympathetic ears? It does look like it, once she was assured that he was no political threat.

Fatima Sana Shaikh, who I always thought looked so much like Priyanka Gandhi, plays Indira, admirably. What’s left therefore is to view Manekshaw as the man he was—charming at the party, boisterous with the press, and blessed with a bravado to galvanise his forces.

The trivia that follows is the film. Messing with no known facts, one bit. Only detailing them as they’re widely known. Gulzar is in no hurry. She holds moments, when she has to. Lending them also a female touch: Manekshaw’s wife (Sanya Malhotra), for instance, is not an ornament.

But does the camera ever viscerally zoom in on the vulnerabilities of a man of war, laying out his bare self at times, when the chips are down? Do you discover the side to a personality you didn’t expect? No, and no.

What the film does best, or at best, is take you through times that were changing. And how things don’t change, really. Indo-Chinese hand-to-hand fights at the borders could be from a couple of years ago. Partition is still an issue. India, Pakistan are very much warring enemies at rest.

This is a fine reckoner of a larger history, which is important to note about this film. Because expectations could be otherwise. Will I play it again, Sam? Perhaps not. Will I recommend it still? Absolutely. 

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