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No one-man army film, but it’s a one-man show by Vicky Kaushal – Beyond Bollywood

Meghna Gulzar’s largely Hindi speaking Field Marshal might not be classic Sam Manekshaw, but she has to live up to the Hindi-film billing.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️ (2 / 5)

By Mayur Lookhar

Here’s a Parsi man flirting with a pretty woman in a pub during pre-independence India. His mates feel it’s best to leave him alone. It’s been two hours merely sipping and watching their senior mingle with the lady. Eventually fed up, one of them says, “You’re talking to the pretty lady, so why do you need us here? Just let us go.”

In great spirits until now, Sam Manekshaw now has a serious look to him. His colleagues are about to leave, when he grabs one of them and says, “Doesn’t matter if it is two hours, and more to go. What’s the first rule in the army? Never leave any man behind.” The woman has a laugh, whereas his colleagues have no option but to obey their senior.

This was a club. On the battlefield, Manekshaw has taken nine shots. He still takes out his Japanese shooter. Nine bullets to the body, it would take a miracle for this wiry man to survive. Bleeding profusely, Sam Manekshaw orders his men to leave him. A badly wounded soldier in the deep forests of Burma, that would be a liability. But his strongest mate from the particular Sikh Regiment is in no mood to leave anyone behind. The Sikh carries his bleeding commander for 14 kilometers.

The attending British doctors at the camp feel any attempts to save him will be futile. They ask him why should we save you? The Parsi man has the gumption to crack a joke.

“A man with such sense of humour, deserves to be saved,” cracks one of the doctors. Well, that was quintessentially Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, affectionately called as Sam Bahadur (1914-2008).

Battlefield, home or parliament, the man never lost his swag or sense of humour. This made him popular/unpopular among his ilk, and social, political circles.  The man never felty shy of expressing himself, but he always obeyed his orders, be it from army generals or Prime Ministers.

Having begun his career in pre-independence era, Manekshaw would have a glittering four decade plus career, first serving the British Indian Army, and then proudly rising through the ranks in the Indian Army, retiring as India’s first Field Marshal. The Manekshaw story is well known in defense, political circles.  Ordinary citizens would recollect him through his candid media interviews. Though old, and still wiry, he startled the viewers with his sharp memory, wit and charisma.

Bulk of these interviews are in English. Not that he wasn’t comfortable with other languages, but an Amritsar-born Parsi in 20th century India would naturally have a strong British hangover. The biggest challenge for director Meghna Gulzar, her co-writers Bhavani Iyer, Shantanu Srivastava was how to draw the desi Bollywood audience to such a personality? The core remains the same, but an English speaking legendary Indian Army Officer wouldn’t quite cater to the desi taste. So, Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur [Vicky Kaushal] largely speaks Hindi, interspersed with English, little bit of Punjabi and even Nepali.  

This desi version of Sam Bahadur might not quite be the classic Sam Manekshaw, but Gulzar, producer Ronnie Screwvala have made a film for the Hindi audience.

In Kaushal, they have a committed artiste, a method actor. The tone might be more desi. The witty English quotes might not have the same impact in Hindi, but Kaushal finely latches on to the idiosyncrasies of the great man. In particularly, the gangly walk. According to Gulzar, it took months for Kaushal to walk normally. This only underlines Kaushal’s commitment to his craft.

Physically and mentally, this is arguably the most challenging role of his career. It’s impossible to impersonate a man like Manekshaw. Largely required to speak Hindi in the Manekshaw style (tone, expression) was an arduous task. He doesn’t flounder as such, but Kaushal appears challenged at certain scenes. In particularly, whilst calling a young (PM) Indira Gandhi sweetie. It’s no fiction. The man has openly admitted to calling big names, even his colleagues sweetie.

As a leader, commander, Sam Bahadur marshalls his troop well. The larger plot is presented in front of PMs, cabinet ministers. The on ground warfare though is barely explored. There is little combat, but as a Commander, Sam emerges a great motivator. No speech per se as the Parsi man kept it short. His words often laced with the Parsi humour. Manekshaw earned respect but also drew the ire of bureaucrats, politicians, envious high ranking officers, one of them was his Army Chief, who he would go on to replace following the 1962 Indo Sino war.

The Manekshaw swag, wit was needed to deal with bureaucracy, polity but the real Sam sparkled when around with his mates in uniform. He owes that name Bahadur to a young Gorkha cadet. He cared for his soldiers, treated everyone with equal respect. He braved to take their concern to the establishment, reminding the leaders that a soldier isn’t born to die, but to eliminate the enemy. Remarkably, he showed respect to the enemy too. During the Manipur insurgency, he mourned the loss of a young militant, who happened to be the son of a fellow Indian army man.

The 1971 East Bengal liberation war is the highlight in Manekshaw’s glittering career, but director Meghna Gulzar rightly remands us of his other accomplishments. She also braves to throw light on the Manekshaw-Yahya Khan equation. Colleagues in the British Indian Army, they would turn adversaries later with the partition of India, and the three Indo-Pak wars [1947, 1965, 1971). Manekshaw knew his adversary, but he never lost respect for him. His visit to Pakistan following the 1971 war, the subsequent controversy back home led to call for his removal back home. Ironically, one of those critics was a politician who had earlier pleaded him to rush into a war with Pakistan. There was scope to show how Pakistani soldiers, who were pardoned by the Indian establishment – Army, express gratitude to Manekshaw, apologise and more importantly, vowing to do away with their Hindu hate.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub

After threatening to go soft on Yahya Khan, Gulzar is mindful of not evoking any further sympathy for the Pakistani general, later president. There must have been a temptation to further explore the Khan-Manekshaw equation, but Gulzar, her producers are wise in not upsetting the prevalent social, nationalistic sentiments. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is the latest Indian artiste to step into the shoes of an infamous Pakistani General. More than the tone, he seems weighed down by the prosthetic.

Fatima Sana Shaikh

The Manekshaw-Khan relationship has its cinematic limitations, but it’s the Indira-Sam bond that is likely to trigger a reaction. If not challenge, there were signs that this film might question the then political mandarins of Delhi. First we see a feeble portrayal of Nehru. [Neeraj Kabi such a misfit]. What does one make of Gulzar’s Indira [Fatima Sana Shaikh]? Reluctant, underconfident. If you have seen Manekshaw interviews, you’d know how he didn’t even hesitate to call Indira sweetie. From his colleagues, female journalist, to Indira, the Parsi man never shied from expressing himself. There is the odd scene [telephone conversation] where Gulzar comes dangerously close to encouraging the gossip mongers.

In a democracy, there is no harm in questioning politics of historical figures, but a filmmaker or any citizen, must respect the prestigious positions that they held. Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur [2023] slightly pushes the envelope. In his media interviews, whilst talking about his equation with Indira Gandhi, the man did spell the sweetie word but was quick to shift the focus back to his profession. If alive, would Sam Bahadur have okayed this representation of Indira? Shaikh’s unconvincing show adds to the disappointment.

The film also seems selective in certain portrayals. A Sardar Patel [Govind Namdev – strange choice] is respected, but Nehru and few of his ministers aren’t quite projected in great light. Lal Bahadur Shastri escapes that scrutiny, but we didn’t even see his face. Such tropes is so unlike Meghna Gulzar. Was it an obligation?

Politics is fine, but General Arora, too, is reduced to a mere proxy.

The Parsi population is forever dwindling, but surely Gulzar could have found one capable artiste to play Siloo Bobde [Manekshaw’s wife]. Sanya Malhotra is a powerhouse of talent, but the Punjabi from Delhi doesn’t quite fit into this Parsi lady role. Both Kaushal and Malhotra barely age despite covering over four decades of the Manekshaw and Siloo’s life, respectively.

Gulzar covers all important stories in Manekshaw’s life. She and her writers, however, fail to build a taut screenplay. It’s a biopic but Sam Manekshaw looms way too large in the screenplay as it struggles to build consistent engagement, The 1971 Indo-Pak war, the most coveted in Sam Bahadur’s history, is passed off hurriedly playing out to a poor song. There maybe some merit in Gulzar’s view of Deepika Padukone’s JNU visit perhaps hurting her last film Chhapaak’s [2020] prospects. However, Chhapaak and now Sam Bahadur, Gulzar clearly misses the pen of Vishal Bhardwaj, whose mentor is her legendary father Sampooran Singh Kalra, better known by his pen name Gulzar.

There is limited scope for music in such biopics. The few tracks in the film are poor. How can viewers have two similar sounding Banda tracks in one year? (First in Jawan and now Sam Bahadur). Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy themselves wouldn’t rate this album much.

Vicky Kaushal looms large in this 150-minute screenplay. The more desi version of Field Marshal Sam Bahadur might not win over purists, but it could connect with the masses. A shaky screenplay but Kaushal holds fort. Definitely, this is not a one-man army film, but it’s a one-man show by Kaushal.

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