One suspects that Sukhmani was a project in development for the late Manoj Punj since his name is attached to the film as story writer. The film also boasts of his regulars – Gurdas Mann, Juhi Chawla and Divya Dutta in the cast. However, the film, directed by Manjeet Maan, is nowhere up to the standards of Punj’s fine work and you cannot help but think what a huge loss his untimely death in 2006 has been to the Punjabi film industry.
Just about the kindest thing one can say at the onset about Sukhmani is that thank God for a Punjabi film, which is not set in some romanticized Punjabi ‘Pind’, and that it is a well intentioned film. But otherwise, there is little this tale of an army major, who loses his wife and daughter to terrorism, has going for it. The screenplay and dialogue, once fleshed out from the story, are terribly old fashioned and archaic and extremely weak like the B Hindi films of the 1980s, while the execution does nothing for the film either. Right from the beginning when the film opens with Gurdas Mann and other soldiers dancing in the army mess proudly declaring they’re soldiers, Asi Fauji Hindustan de, you sense you’re in for a rough ride and yes, you are.
So we have Major Kuldeep Singh (Gurdas Mann), a brave army officer posted in the Kashmir valley living with his wife, Preet (Juhi Chawla), and little daughter, Sukhmani. He is successful in dealing with a hostage crisis even though a little girl is killed in the process. Preet fears for him and their daughter and the risk he faces everyday but understands at the same time that duty calls. The militants in the valley decide to kill the Major but Preet and Sukhmani fall prey to the terrrorit’s bullet instead. To maintain his sanity and avoid falling into a black hole of depression, Kuldeep returns to his duty, fighting the terrorists with renewed vigor. The Major is sent to repatriate innocent civilians from the Wagah border, meeting Reshma (Divya Dutta), an about to be unwed mother. He decides to protect her from the social stigma as well as from the evil intentions of his own comrade, Captain Mohan Dev (Anoop Soni), who is in links with the militants and in a way responsible for the deaths of Preet and Sukhmani. Reshma gives birth to a little girl. He takes her home but her father refuses to accept her. Kuldeep decides to take of her and Reshma finds herself falling for him, even naming the girl Sukhmani. Meanwhile Captain Mohan Dev has the Major declared a traitor and the army is out for his blood…
Regional cinema normally swings two ways. Either, the film is true to its roots and off the beaten path – look at some of the Marathi cinema of late – Gabhricha Paus and Harischandrachi Factory to name two or even Tamil films like Paruthiveeran or Subramaniapuram, which were highly acclaimed and what’s more, hugely successful at the box-office. Else, they’re bad xerox copies of Bollywood films. Sukhmani, for all its intentions, adheres more to this type. The Tamil and Telugu industries have money and budgets comparable to Hindi cinema but industries like the Punjabi ones do not. Consequently, these films end up looking as tacky wannabes of mainstream films. Those watching Bengali commercial cinema that is aping Tamil cinema today will bear me out on this!
Anyway, back to Sukhmani. The treatment of the film is cliched, the characters are stereotypical and the situations standard. Worse, the film leaves you asking a lot of questions. Since Major Kuldeep Singh suspects Captain Mohan Dev, you wonder why he never confronts him earlier. How does the commanding officer accept the Captain’s story so easily over one phone call that Kuldeep is in fact a traitor? And this, after he goes out of his way earlier to show what high regard he has for Major Kuldeep Singh as an officer. Major Kuldeep’s loss of sanity is also treated most unconvincingly. And what was that connection between Captain Mohan Dev and Reshma, which is never explained? The end sequences – the capture of the militants and Captain Mohan Dev’s enquiry are hurried patched together as if the makers have decided the film has reached its running length and needs to be ended immediately.
The actors try and do what they can but are unable to lift the film, stuck as they are in stock situations. Gurdas Mann gives the role his all, but his acting swings between the acting of the 1980s and today – he needed some directorial control that Punj was so successful with in all the films they did together. Juhi Chawla as the perfect wife facing her own insecurities of being an army man’s wife in a conflict zone is efficient enough in a role she could have done in her sleep. Undoubtedly, the best performance comes from Divya Dutta as the unwed mother who is regarded as an outcaste. She speaks with her silences and gives her character great dignity and inner strength. The supporting cast is very so-so.
The technicalities are just about adequate. In fact, some shots taken with the wide angle lens are totally out of focus suspecting that the particular lens was mounted incorrectly. The music is fine enough and Gurdas Mann, the singer, is in great voice as usual and scores over Mann the actor. But the background is too typical and a big no-no. The film’s editing pattern gives it a sluggish feel as it’s length tells on the overall pace and rhythm of the film with many scenes outliving their usefulness. For instance, Major Kuldeep’s key moment as he overhears that he has been declared a traitor goes on and on and on and yes, on.
All in all, Sukhmani is disappointing to say the least and leaves you wondering what a big difference Punj at its helm could have made.
Punjabi, Action, Drama, Color