Playing out on a vast and varied canvas, Sam Bahadur crams a lifetime into its two and a half hours. The film covers four decades of active military service, five wars, anti-insurgency operations and brushes with Prime Ministers. Inevitably, Meghna Gulzar’s ambitious biographical film feels a tad rushed. But for sure it has nary a dull moment.
The film fires on the fronts that matter. Driven by a high-spirited performance from Vicky Kaushal, it delivers a rounded, rousing portrait of Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, a gentleman and an officer whose grit and gallantry, joie de vivre, power of repartee and an unwavering sense of purpose are the stuff of legend.
An intense character study more than an action-heavy war movie, Sam Bahadur hits most of its targets. It blends the story of an illustrious life – it isn’t exactly a from-the-cradle-to-the-grave affair although it does begin with the protagonist as a newborn in a crib – with the exploits of a legendary army man who brought remarkable dexterity to bear upon his job as a soldier and a leader.
The screenplay by Bhavani Iyer, Shantanu Srivastava and Meghna Gulzar adroitly picks incidents and encounters that aid in imparting a vivid, vibrant quality to the picture. As much about an individual as about a nation, Sam Bahadur has the sprawl of an epic and the delicate touches of an intimate chronicle.
As the film flits from one point in time to another from the early 1940s (when Japanese soldiers march into Burma) to the early 1970s (when the Indian Army enters Bangladesh’s war of liberation), it has its share of ellipses. But no matter how glaring the gaps are, they do not restrict the sweep of the consistently arresting saga.
The screenwriters graft just enough narrative meat on to the condensed storyline to be able to do justice to the charismatic general whose career it explores in the context of the nation’s eventful history before and after Independence.
I fight to win, Manekshaw frequently asserts, often in so many words. That might make him sound like an insuperable Hindi action film hero. But the director makes it a point not to turn the protagonist into a larger-than-life figure – which he probably was to the men he led.
Keeping hysteria out of history, she presents the great soldier not as a single-hued, punchline-spouting general but as a believable human – a man of conviction – intelligent, confident and cocky – and a master strategist who revelled in speaking his mind.
The Sam Bahadur we see on the screen isn’t a Bollywoodised version of a hero from the pages of Indian military history, but a man rooted in the real world but endowed with exceptional acumen and courage of conviction.
What’s in a name? In the case of Sam Manekshaw, as the film about him tells us, there is a whole lot. In the opening sequence, we learn that Sam’s parents had christened him Cyrus but were constrained to rename him because a thief named Cyrus had just been nabbed in the neighbourhood.
In the next scene – it is repeated later in film – an 8th Gorkha Rifles jawan, when Manekshaw asks him if he knows the name of the Indian Army chief, lisps “Sam Bahadur”. The apt moniker sticks.
Played with panache by Vicky Kaushal, who walks the tightrope between caricature and authenticity and never keels over on to the side of the former, Sam Manekshaw emerges as a man and an icon who was both enormously charming and dauntingly firm.
Falling back on a jaunty gait, dialogue delivery faintly reminiscent of Hum Dono‘s Dev Anand and demeanour that exudes both hauteur and amiability – Kaushal livens up the portraiture with distinct mannerisms that are far removed from his own.
One of the most striking aspects of Sam Bahadur is that it eschews flag-waving militarism while celebrating the bravery of India’s soldiers. It treads gently and thoughtfully through the life-threatening minefields that infantrymen have to negotiate in the line of duty. There are battle scenes and punchlines aplenty in the film, but they do not overshadow the less flashy components with which the lively biopic is constructed.
Sam Bahadur isn’t only about a man delivering rousing speeches to lift the spirits of his men or stamp his personality on the army under him. It is also about the human and personal aspects of a general’s life, which are underscored in the moments that he has with his wife Silloo (Sanya Malhotra) and family.
Since the film harks back to a time when love for the nation was not coloured by any manner of religious exceptionalism, it showcases an ethos that hinged on a celebration of unity in diversity, the cornerstone of the idea of India. The war cries of the various regiments (in the film’s climactic passages) point to the variegated backgrounds of Indian soldiers marching towards a common goal.
In a significantly resonant scene, a court of inquiry charges Manekshaw with being anti-national because the defence academy he presides over has portraits of British soldiers rather than those of Indian political leaders. The general’s response to the flimsy allegation is illuminating. The academy trains soldiers, not politicians, he asserts.
Sam Bahadur slips up a bit in its sketchy portrayal of Jawaharlal Nehru (played by Neeraj Kabi). Indira Gandhi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) receives far better treatment. Not only does India’s third Prime Minister get greater play in the narrative, she also has a scene or two is which she nearly steals Sam’s thunder.
In one sequence, Mrs Gandhi puts Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his place (using chief of army staff Manekshaw as her trump card) when he threatens India with dire consequences if she attacks Pakistan on the eastern front.
Newsreel footage of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman exhorting his people to rise in revolt, sequences of Dhaka University students being gunned down by the Pakistan army and flashes of General Yahya Khan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), Manekshaw’s friend in their pre-Partition defence academy days, planning to precipitate a confrontation with India are woven into the lead-up to the Bangladesh war. So, Sam Bahadur isn’t just talk. There is enough in here to keep the film on the boil all through.
It would be easy to describe Sam Bahadur as a Vicky Kaushal show because it is who dominates every major scene in the film. But without the fine balance that Meghna Gulzar strikes between ambition and restraint, neither the spirited central performance nor its emotional (and cinematic) payoff would have been quite as remarkable.
Vicky Kaushal, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub and Neeraj Kabi