Movie Review: Masterful performance by Vicky Kaushal propels Sam Bahadur

Rating: 3.5/5

Starring: Vicky Kaushal, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Neeraj Kabi, Govind Namdeo, Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub.

Director: Meghna Gulzar.

Screenplay: Meghna Gulzar, Shantanu Srivastava and Bhavani Iyer.

Dialogues: Meghna Gulzar, Shantanu Srivastava and Bhavani Iyer.

Story: Meghna Gulzar, Shantanu Srivastava and Bhavani Iyer.

Producers: Ronnie Screwvala.

Streaming on: ZEE5 Global.

Meghna Gulzar’s latest directorial film, Sam Bahadur, is a biographical fiction on India’s first Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who was no less famous than any Bollywood star of his time. The film has received a fair split between bouquets and brickbats from the audience and critics. 

Making a fictionalised feature film on an international, glamorous, real-life hero was an uphill climb. But Meghna Gulzar has nailed it right and proper, aided by the wonderful support of her team evident right through the film. However, for the biographical feature film, it is important to remember that the narrative fiction of the story may not precisely coincide with the recorded biography of the subject the film is being made on but is also about how the filmmaker perceives the subject, Nehru or Gandhi or Bose, and how the filmmaker desires his/her audience to see the subject. 

This gap between historical truth and personal perception and interpretation of the filmmaker about this truth is easily understood if one considers different narrations of history by different scholars, each one giving an account of a national figure that is different from the others. The validity of the subject of the celluloid discourse (cinema) and the authenticity of the film need not necessarily spring from actuality but rather, from the essence of the filmmaker’s memories, desires and dreams about the subject he is making the film on. 

Filmmakers, as creative artistes in their own right, are somewhat reluctant to explore celluloid translations of history. They are inclined to offer new interpretations of history, shed light on little-known facts about the subject they would like to make a film on, and even raise questions not raised in the course of academic research.

Meghna Gulzar (right) directed Vicky Kaushal in a role that he aced. Photo courtesy: Collected.
Vicky Kaushal (left) with Sam Bahadur director Meghna Gulzar. Photo courtesy: Collected

Let us first look at the ‘negative’ points. The film remains completely silent on Sam’s boyhood filled with naughtiness and mischief after throwing a minute-long glimpse of the newborn Sam whose name is changed from the original “Cyrus” deemed to be unlucky. It is very important to show how such a great leader actually shaped up to become a national hero during some of the most critical phases of India’s history of war and conflict.

The other factor the film does not show at all is Sam’s personal relationship with his two daughters first and his wife, second. Why? He is said to have had a contented family life, though for most of his youth and middle-age, he was positioned away from his immediate family. Even his wife, Siloo (Sanya Malhotra) is marginalised with the quality of being shown as the normal, suspicious wife who does not quite care for her husband’s imagined proximity to Indira Gandhi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) though journalistic reportage shows her as the ideal life partner, in public life and in personal relationship, of a national hero. The only closeness we are witness to is Sam’s passing pot-shots at the South-based manservant who speaks English tinged heavily with his own dialect and that is all there is to Sam Maneckshaw’s family life.

His full name was Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw,Sheikh, but he was referred to by people who knew him and interacted with him personally and professionally, either called him “Sam” or referred to him as “Sam Manekshaw”. Another flaw lies in the rather unconvincing performance of Fatima Sana Shaikh, who looks quite awkward and stiff as Indira Gandhi as we see the beautiful PM evolve from being the reigning PM’s (Neeraj Kabi) daughter to the strong first woman PM of India. One more negative shade lies in the marginalisation of the women in the film, beginning with the little Sam’s mother through his wife, followed by his two daughters, all three quite strong in their own right. Why, since Meghna herself is a woman?

Fatima Sana Shaikh (2nd from left) and Neeraj Kavi (3rd from left) played former Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, respectively. Photo courtesy: Collected.
Fatima Sana Shaikh (2nd from left) plays former India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Sam Bahadur. Photo courtesy: Collected.

Coming to the positive strengths of the film, one must concede that the greatest strength of the film lies in the extremely well- researched performance of Vicky Kaushal in the title role. There is one dramatic scene in the film where we find Sam Bahadur motivating his soldiers just prior to the India-Pakistan War, 1971, when he says with conviction, “Hum Rahe Na Rahe Humare Vardi Ka Gaurav Rehna Chahiye.” The intensity and fire in Vicky’s voice, his body language and his manner of delivery underscores how he projects through his masterful performance,  that he was perhaps born to portray Sam Bahadur.  

Vicky Kaushal has taken great pains to imitate from documented film clips, the way Sam walked a little bent with his hands together behind him, his blue eyes, his legendary moustache so much in detail that at times, it becomes difficult to separate him from the character he is playing which is saying a lot as Sam was a Parsee while Vicky is not. The iconisation of Sam during his lifetime as he went on climbing the ladder of fame, power and success comes across the film, complete with beautiful editing and apt cinematography, both of which must have worked as challenges for the respective craftsmen, must be seen through the film to be believed.

Meghna Gulzar brings to the fore historical milestones beginning with the Burma War through World War II, followed by the Sino-Indian War, the Indo-Pakistan War, and the Bangladesh Liberation War where the incidents and events are not strung together for their own sake or to flesh out the narrative but to save the visual narration from becoming overly dramatised and preachy. 

The writing by Bhavani Iyer, Shantanu Srivastava, and Meghna herself pays close details to Manekshaw’s close but cautious camaraderie with PM Gandhi. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub as Yahya Khan and Govind Namdev as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel do justice to their characters while we feel charmed by the close friendship of Sam and Yahya Khan when they were young which stands in contrast when the conflict between the two nations forces the once-close friends stand opposite each other as ‘enemies.’ The cinematography by Jay Patel is flawless, especially in capturing the battle scenes and the soundtrack matches this ideally, though it sounds a bit too loud at places, thereby tending to dominate the dialogue. The background score is also overpowering, which it did not need to be.

One of the strongest points of the film is its prolific use of different media picked from history such as documented newspaper clippings, pictures, film clips, footage of the Indian war situation beginning with the bombing of Burma (now Myanmar) by the Japanese and closing with the 1971 war, the change in prime ministers over Sam’s tenure post independence invests the film with the feeling of a war documentary which is apt in a biopic on a war veteran. This use of varied media picked carefully and painstakingly from the archives of history adds a realistic dimension to the fictionalised film. All said and done, Sam Bahadur is a very powerful film.