Once upon a time there was Sunny Deol’s dhai kilo ka haath, which uprooted a hand pump to scare off the entire Pakistan Army. Today there is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s index finger.
To be fair, Sarbjit is not the unrelenting screamfest that Gadar was, but Deol’s film came to mind as the former Miss World held up her famous slender digit to intimidate an armed Pakistani security official. She did this right after delivering a loud speech to a Pakistani mob about how Pakistanis stab us Indians in the back while we bravely fight them face to face. As expected, the gun-bearing Pakistani meekly moves aside, and she proceeds to grandly walk past him as only Indian movie stars can when up against the dreaded dushman from across the border.
This embarrassingly tacky, populist scene of high-decibel, chest-thumping patriotism is the low point in a film that never quite takes off anyway.
August 25, 1990: a farmer from Bhikhiwind village in Punjab crosses the India-Pak border in an inebriated state, is mistaken for a terrorist and jailed in Pakistan, returning 23 years later in a coffin after he is allegedly murdered by fellow prisoners.
The true story of Sarabjit Singh Atwal is a tragedy of gargantuan proportions that is enough to move a rock to tears. Yet director Omung Kumar somehow manages to make a curiously unmoving film out of this inherently heartbreaking story.
A large part of the reason for this is the writing by Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri, which places Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur rather than Sarabjit at the centre of the plot. This might have been an acceptable writing choice if they had focused on the nitty-gritty of this brave woman’s battle to free her brother. Instead we get broad brush strokes which induce a sense of detachment rather than involvement with this real-life crusader and her unfortunate sibling.
The writing is not the film’s primary problem though. The primary problem is the casting of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Dalbir. Try as she might, the actress cannot get under the skin of her character. She does not have the look or the body language of a Sardarni from rural Punjab, but her effort to get there shows in every studied gesture, every laboured expression, every step, every word spoken, until that effort becomes so distracting that it eclipses all else in the film.
This is particularly unfortunate because the rest of the cast is formidably gifted, but the entire project seems designed to ensure that they do not overshadow the central star. Rarely has Bollywood witnessed such a self-defeating approach to filmmaking.
Despite this, Randeep Hooda – one of the industry’s most under-rated talents – shines as Sarabjit to the extent that it is possible given the limited writing. His physical transformation from a healthy, happy-go-lucky young farmer and wrestling enthusiast to a scrawny, ragged, filthy prisoner is remarkable, a combination of his own scary dedication (he reportedly lost 18kg for the role), SFX and his makeup artist Renuka Pillai’s ability to understand the requirements of a character. In his skinny body and decrepit face here, it is hard to spot the actor’s naturally sexy persona or the hot physique he has happily displayed in earlier films.
Commendably though, Hooda does not use the bodily makeover as a crutch. His performance is greatly handicapped by the fact that the camera rarely dwells on his face when it is in the light in India, and in the shadows in his Pakistani prison we see his countenance with clarity pretty late into Sarbjit’s running time. Further diverting attention from him, quite senselessly, are pictures of the real Sarabjit on posters and placards being held up by campaigners in the film – serving to repeatedly remind the audience that the guy we see on screen is someone else.
Hampered in so many ways from so many directions, Hooda still immerses himself in the role, making it possible to sometimes forget that he is but an actor playing a part.
Richa Chadha as Sarabjit’s wife Sukhpreet is mostly on the margins, but in the one scene where the spotlight is firmly on her, she sparkles. The situation is a confrontation between Sukhpreet and Dalbir. Without raising her voice even a single notch, without seeming to try at all, Chadha delivers the only scene in the entire film in which I found myself crying.
Darshan Kumaar is the new chameleon of Bollywood. As the zealous Pakistani lawyer Avais Sheikh who takes up Sarbjit’s case he is a far cry from the heroine’s soft-spoken, supportive husband he played in Mary Kom (2014) or the frightfully evil fellow he was in last year’s NH10.
Omung Kumar debuted with Mary Kom in which, despite the grievous offence of casting Priyanka Chopra as a Manipuri woman, he pulled through on the strength of Saiwyn Quadras’ solid script, Chopra’s acting talent and his own firm directorial hand. Here though, he seems scattered and star-struck. It is as if he zeroed in on a star and built a film around her. Big mistake.
When you watch Sarbjit, you must accept it as a given that the makers believe Sarabjit Singh Atwal and his family’s version of events, not the Pakistani authorities. The reason why that is okay is because the film is not pretending to be a journalistic exercise telling all sides of the story; it is open about its stance that it is a feature recounting one side of the story. Besides, unlike the Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift released earlier this year, the fictionalisation here does not amount to outright, blatant lies revolving around a protagonist who never existed in reality.
The news occurrences in Sarbjit are more or less faithful to Indian media reports, with certain self-serving omissions such as the real Sarabjit’s reported admission to a Pakistani judge that he was involved in cross-border liquor smuggling (not spying and terrorism) or the controversies surrounding the real Dalbir. Even if these exclusions were to be excused as cinematic licence, the problem remains that this film fails to flesh out the people at the heart of this true story.
Statistics flashed on screen right before the end credits inform us that there were 403 Indians languishing in Pakistani jails and 278 Pakistanis in Indian jails as on July 1, 2015. Like Sarabjit, they are not mere numbers, they are living breathing human beings, many of whom (though not all) are innocent victims of the long-running political enmity between India and Pakistan.
Sarbjit is a lesson in how not to tell their story.