Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur is a cinematic tribute to India’s inaugural Field Marshal, the illustrious Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, played by Vicky Kaushal. The narrative not only aims to capture Manekshaw’s remarkable odyssey but also to highlight his role in transforming the nation’s perspective on the sacrifices borne by soldiers in the defence of their homeland. However, the loftily intended film falls short as instead of delving into the intricate complexities and nuances that moulded Manekshaw into a formidable figure, the film strictly adheres to factual accuracy and is a collage of a series of events rather than a filmic whole.
Sam Bahadur begins with the revelation that Sam’s parents harboured the desire to name their son Cyrus, a wish thwarted by an unforeseen incident in the neighbourhood. The story then catapults us to when Sam introduces himself to the officers of the 8th Gorkha Rifles. From this juncture, the film embarks on a journey chronicling the myriad phases of Manekshaw”s illustrious career. The film sees him surviving multiple bullet injuries during the tumultuous World War II, oversee Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947, and confront the challenges of the 1962 war with China. His military saga continues as he skillfully plans and executes India’s victory over Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. It earned him the distinguished title of India’s first Field Marshal, a crowning honour bestowed just days before his retirement.
The script by Gulzar, Bhavani Iyer, and Shantanu Shrivastava, unfolds like a historical tapestry, weaving in key events that shaped the political narratives of the nation. However, the film’s episodic presentation of these events tends to lean towards eulogy rather than delve into the complexities of Manekshaw’s formidable persona. Crafted with a singular focus on portraying Sam as an indomitable force, whether in convincing a young woman to be his wife or in commanding respect for his strategies among political leaders and soldiers, it inadvertently neglects to infuse the protagonist with a sense of vulnerability and keeps him devoid of normal human failings. Sam appears almost invincible, easily overcoming every challenge and persuasion in his path. While this does bring to the fore his legendary stature, it also leaves an emotional void in the viewer’s ability to connect with the man on a deeper, more human level.
In a pivotal scene of the film, the then Indian Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon expresses discontent with General Brij Mohan Kaul about Sam’s rigid and disciplined approach. Collaboratively, they concoct a scheme to brand him as anti-national, seizing upon the feeble pretext that the walls of his Madras training academy are adorned with photographs of British soldiers rather than current Indian politicians. Facing the inquiry commission, Sam asserts that an academy exists to mould soldiers, not politicians. This moment serves as a reflective window into the character of a man of unwavering resolve, whose intentions are grounded in serving the nation rather than appeasing the egos of political leaders. This trait permeates the film consistently, whether he’s candidly discussing the army budget with the prime minister at a social gathering or when providing logistical insights as the nation stands on the brink of war with Pakistan in 1971.
Despite her formidable reputation as a resolute politician and a tough nut to crack, the characterisation of Indira Gandhi is one of the film’s major shortcomings. Mrs Gandhi seems to readily acquiesce to every decision made by Sam, whether it’s the security-based restriction preventing her entry into the Ops Room or facing a reprimand regarding a soldier’s duty to defend the country. Even when she takes on the former US Defence Minister Henry Kissinger telling him to stay clear of India’s decision to go to war against Pakistan, the scene belies her authority, relying more on dialogue than building dramatic tension. Similarly, the character of Sam’s wife, Silloo, is relegated to a typical supporting role, her presence solely to provide emotional solace to her husband. Her inexplicable jealousy towards Indira Gandhi lacks proper build-up or logical grounding thereby exposing the lack of coherence within this subplot. A more balanced portrayal could have elevated the film at least a notch or two by showcasing these women as individuals in their own right rather than mere satellites revolving around Sam’s character.
Vicky Kaushal doesn’t just portray the character; he embodies him. Through the nuances of his dialogue delivery, the subtle stoop of his shoulders, and the refined manners he adopts, Kaushal breathes life into the legendary figure on the screen. In bringing to life the character of a devoted wife who accepts her husband unconditionally, even in the face of several transfer orders, Sanya Malhotra crafts a lovable on-screen version of Silloo Manekshaw in spite of her sketchy characterisation. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of Yahya Khan delves effectively into the intricacies of the character’s emotions and complexities. The exploration of the emotional conflict between Sam and Yahya, if explored deeper in the screenplay, could have added an extra layer of depth. Neeraj Kabi as Jawaharlal Nehru, Govind Namdev as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Aanjjan Srivastav as Yashwantrao Chavan are all commendable. However, Fatima Sana Shaikh disappoints as Indira Gandhi.
Through Jay I Patel’s cinematography, Sam emerges as more than just a character; he becomes a living, breathing embodiment of strength, resilience, and purpose. Patel’s keen eye captures the play of light and shadow on Sam’s face, accentuating every line and contour, revealing the depth of the character’s experiences etched into his visage. Nitin Baid’s skilful editing overrides the episodic story flow showing good control over the rhythmic progression of the narrative. Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray’s production design creates a satisfying journey through the several time periods. Kunal Sharma’s sound design paired with Ketan Sodha’s emotive background score not only amplifies the overall mood of the film but also intensifies the impact of pivotal moments thereby weaving an effective sonic experience. The song, Badhte Chalo by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, though not brilliantly composed, carries significance in the film as it shows how soldiers from diverse communities formed the Indian army during their war with Pakistan in 1971.
While Meghna Gulzar’s directorial finesse is evident, a deeper exploration of dramatic elements and a more coherent cinematic treatment could have further strengthened the film’s impact. Fortunately, Vicky Kaushal’s performance ensures that Sam Bahadur remains watchable enough right through.
Hindi,Drama, Action, Biopic, Color