Sam Bahadur movie review: Facile and forgettable vignette reel powered by Vicky Kaushal
Sam Bahadur movie review: Director Meghna Gulzar’s latest dramatises the adventures and witticisms of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s life sans nuance.
Sam Bahadur movie review: Sam Bahadur has so much going for it. For director Meghna Gulzar, it comes on the back of two glowing successes in Talvar (2015) and Raazi (2018). It stars Vicky Kaushal, who is no stranger to playing men on a mission against the nation’s adversaries, having done it for both fictitious and real-life figures in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and Sardar Udham (2021). Lastly, it’s about the life of one of the country’s most storied soldiers, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, a near-mythical colossus who lived after being shot nine times by a Japanese soldier in WWII. Also read: Sam Bahadur Twitter reviews hail Vicky Kaushal as Sam Manekshaw in Meghna Gulzar's film
Twisting and fidgeting in your seat for the longest time, you wait for that decisive moment of cinematic brilliance. You smile hard when writer Bhavani Iyer and director Meghna Gulzar try to make you laugh. And yet, at the end of it all, the point of Sam Bahadur eludes you completely. I came out of the movie hall feeling like I had just been administered a fresh retelling of the annual online listicle you read on Manekshaw — renowned feeder of humble pie even to the country’s then Prime Minister, proud owner of the bushy handlebar moustache and dispenser of bangles and battlezone aphorisms.
Biopics are a sketchy genre purely because most of them follow an episodic framework and are limited by the concepts of veracity and length. What makes a product of this genre memorable is how and where the central conflict of a film is located. In Oppenheimer, which came out earlier this year, it was the revocation of the security clearance of the protagonist and how the film wound itself around that. Sam Bahadur chooses to tell the story of its celebrated protagonist without much narrative pyrotechnics, divergence or problematising Manekshaw's recent appropriation as the ultimate sigma male. It is so single-mindedly committed to reaping the rewards of bringing his legend alive on screen that it ends up delivering a hagiography. In fact, the characterisation of Manekshaw’s Pakistani counterpart, Yahya Khan (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub), receives more nuance (but not without some scary ageing makeup and prosthetics).
If there’s one thing that keeps you hooked to this film, it has to be Vicky Kaushal. After a largely underwhelming year in terms of characters written for him in Govinda Naam Mera, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke and The Great Indian Family, Sam Bahadur gives Kaushal just the kind of magic to work that he has showcased in Sardar Udham, Raazi (2018) and Masaan (2015). In the hands of a lesser performer, Manekshaw’s gait, affected vocalisation and widely known effortless charm and quick wit might look like a caricature, but the ever-confident Kaushal maintains a firm grip over the character. His offscreen candour and self-accepting ways translate beautifully into the protagonist’s optimism and unwavering faith in his abilities.
Sanya Malhotra, as Sam’s winsome wife Silloo Bode, brings an emotional anchor to the Manekshaw household, complementing his maverick energy with the ease that she has come to demonstrate most recently in Jawan and Kathal. It is frequently hinted at in the film that Manekshaw’s wins come at the cost of Silloo and their daughters. Fatima Sana Shaikh as Indira Gandhi, however, is largely an unsteady portrayal whose blame lay largely on the casting choice.
The film’s music is loud, distracting and unmelodious (the war anthem Badhte Chalo is unbelievably insipid and inelegant), which is surprising considering Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s obvious musical prowess and the trio’s last fabulous collaboration with Gulzar, Raazi. In addition to a middling background score, Sam Bahadur also makes effective use of archival footage to keep the narrative and bring a documentary gravitas to the proceedings, but even that contributes to the film’s passive linearity and staccato time leaps.
Sam Bahadur can be seen as sweet and engaging in the individual segments of Manekshaw’s life that together form the film’s plot. They are shot, designed and acted very well (props to cinematographer Jay I Patel’s work on the air strikes and combat scenes in Burma) and might just make it worth watching this larger-than-life vignette reel in the theatres. But the strands that tie them together, such as Manekshaw’s banter with his radio set-carrying cook, the leading man and his lady’s ballroom meet-cute — or the sequence where he is seen making the wildly popular declaration about gurkhas and fear, feel disjointed and in desperate need to be cut some slack on account of the film’s largely sanguine tone.
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Sanya Malhotra, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Neeraj Kabi
Direction: Meghna Gulzar