Sam Bahadur Movie Review: There is no denying that Bollywood is currently producing an abundance of army-based movies and shows (Manekshaw appeared as a character in Pippa a couple of weeks ago). However, Sam Bahadur, a biopic of the late Sam Manekshaw, India's first Field Marshal, stands out as a captivating idea. The image of the military leader seated at his desk, his trademark moustache catching the spotlight, is a photo that most Indians are familiar with. With Meghna Gulzar (known for Talvar and Raazi) directing Sam Bahadur, the film gained an added layer of intrigue, despite the director's mixed track record, as seen in Chhapaak. Sam Bahadur: Vicky Kaushal Responds to a Fan Asking Who He Will Dedicate if His Films Wins an Oscar or Filmfare.
As a film, Sam Bahadur displays a deep admiration for the man it seeks to portray. However, it treats him like an enigma than as a real person, avoiding delving into his tough exterior to present a more three-dimensional persona. Although the film takes us through his life, from infancy through his active military years to retirement, it feels like chapters of a book that have stripped away nuances and depth, condensing itself for easy reading, akin to a primary school primer.
Sam Bahadur kicks off with a tonally jarring scene depicting his name change from Cyrus to Sam during infancy. As a young adult, we witness Sam Manekshaw (Vicky Kaushal) as a rebellious figure in a military academy run by British majors - a charmer who flouts campus curfew to meet Russian girls at parties. Here, Kalki Koechlin makes a distracting cameo with a red wig. Subsequently, he earns a promotion and leads a unit against the Japanese army in Rangoon during World War II, surviving a firing incident and receiving a gallantry award.
Post India gaining independence, Manekshaw finds himself embroiled in the Kashmir ascension crisis, sidelined during the Indo-China 1962 war, and leading the country during the 1971 war against Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh. Interspersed with these events, we catch glimpses of his family life with his wife Silloo (Sanya Malhotra).
Watch the Trailer of Sam Bahadur:
Indian cinema rarely produces biopics that avoid feeling like hagiographies. When attempting a biopic on a celebrated military leader with the blessings of the Ministry of Defence and the Indian Army, one doesn't expect a thorough three-dimensional exploration of the protagonist. With this in mind, my expectations for Sam Bahadur were limited to a glorifying portrayal of the hero who led India to victory in one of its biggest wars—an expectation that the film fulfills.
What I hoped Sam Bahadur would address, however, was helping me, as a viewer with limited knowledge of Manekshaw, understand the acumen of this legend—what made him such a great strategist. This is where the film falls short. While we witness feats of his greatness and understand his significance to political figures like Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, the movie fails to unravel the dynamics that made these relationships work. Consequently, Sam Bahadur becomes a series of vignettes, akin to a museum tour, guiding us through his life without allowing the viewer to truly grasp and invest in what made him tick.
The lack of involvement profoundly irritated me, especially in the film's crucial portion depicting Manekshaw's handling of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The entire strategic planning is breezed through in a montage set against the backdrop of a stirring war anthem. The movie often seemed like a scan of Manekshaw's Wikipedia page, selectively highlighting portions with the most patriotic fervor. Certain aspects of Manekshaw's mannerisms felt forced into the narrative, such as his sudden addressal of everyone as 'Sweety,' which, even if not gender-specific, came across as creepy in the film's execution.
Also can't help but notice the film is, at times, misogynistic. In one scene, Manekshaw sends a unit a box of bangles to mock them for backing out of a mission. While I understand the intent to diminish masculine egos during a wartime situation, implying their act of cowardice with bangles and associating them with the opposite gender raises ethical questions. Regardless of whether this occurred in real life, such a scene doesn't deserve a place in a film produced in this age and time, particularly by a female director.
The movie occasionally dismisses some valid questionable aspects with a chest-thumping smarminess. A fellow army officer, jealous of Manekshaw's rise, raises a valid question about the presence of portraits of British generals in the military headquarters of Free India. Manekshaw's response during a tribunal hearing aims to please the crowds, stating that the military headquarters is meant to celebrate army officers, not politicians. However, in a country still grappling with the scars of 200 years of colonial rule, this inadvertently highlights a persistent accusation about the army's colonial hangover in the rank-ups. Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif Turn Heads in Matching All Black Ensembles at Sam Bahadur Screening.
This is a recurring issue with Sam Bahadur. When the movie struggles to maintain the narrative, it injects patriotic speeches to distract from its flaws. Unfortunately, this confines the leading man to a character of great speeches rather than the brilliant tactician we want to learn and understand.
The film also fails to establish a consistent tone, occasionally injecting humor right after a serious sequence. For instance, after a Pakistani unit ambushes and kills an Indian army contingent, the next scene humorously points out how Manekshaw's tactical unit is so engrossed in strategising that they forgot to place a phone in the room for communication.
I can't categorise Sam Bahadur as entirely disappointing. Meghna Gulzar's direction, in most parts, is competent, yet the deft handling seen in Talvar and Raazi is noticeably absent. The writing and editing let the film down, but Meghna is fortunate to have a talented actor like Vicky Kaushal to inject life into the production.
Honestly, Sam Bahadur wouldn't rank among my favorite performances of Vicky Kaushal. Despite reading articles about his meticulous preparation, watching videos of Sam Manekshaw, and attempting a 'method' approach, his performance at times felt overly rehearsed and distracting. I found myself most invested in Vicky's performance during the more subdued moments, where his eyes and clenched jawline conveyed significant intensity. Nonetheless, he still remains the standout element of Sam Bahadur.
Sanya Malhotra performs adequately as Sam's supportive and understanding wife but seems miscast when portrayed as a mother to an adult and later a grandmother. No amount of grey hair can disguise that Sanya still looks too young for such a role. Even more glaring of a miscast is her Dangal co-star Fatima Sana Shaikh, playing the late PM Indira Gandhi. Regardless of the actress's capabilities, Fatima's portrayal seemed like she was cosplaying the Iron Lady of India. The writing around her character and the dynamic she shares with Manekshaw, blending respect and cautious friction, is flawed. The film, for comical reasons, treats her as the 'other woman' in Manekshaw's life through Silloo's jealous POV. This not only enhances Sam Manekshaw's alpha masculinity but also reduces India's first woman PM to a joke. Furthermore, the film consistently portrays Indira Gandhi as dependent on Manekshaw's astuteness, causing her to lose her own temerity in the process.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub also appears in the film playing Pakistani General Yahya Khan, once a friend of Manekshaw. I have never seen this wonderful actor give such an artificial performance before, not helped by the fact that he is lost in some very disconcerting prosthetics to look the 'part.'
Sam Bahadur, ultimately, falls short of unraveling the complexities of the statesmanship of the enigmatic Sam Manekshaw. While Vicky Kaushal's performance is notable, the film grapples with tonal inconsistencies, occasional misogyny, and missed opportunities to delve into the strategic brilliance of the legendary figure. Sam is Bahadur, but the biopic isn't bahadur enough and plays very textbook-like when it comes to showing his rise through the birth of this nation.
(The above story first appeared on LatestLY on Nov 30, 2023 09:54 PM IST. For more news and updates on politics, world, sports, entertainment and lifestyle, log on to our website latestly.com).