Omung Kumar was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s production designer before he turned director, so certain things are a given. He likes strong women characters. His first film was Mary Kom. His latest is Sarbjit, about the Punjabi man who wandered off into Pakistan and was arrested as a spy – but the film should have been named for his sister Dalbir (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). It’s really her story, about her determination to bring him back to her pind. It’s a Mother India-like lone-woman-braving-the-storm narrative, and Dalbir is less a character than an inspirational archetype like Radha, the character Nargis played (she, too, kept searching for a missing man) – you half-expect Dalbir to plough a tunnel between the neighbouring countries and smuggle her brother back. We don’t get too many of these women on screen anymore.
The other Bhansali influence is in the melodrama. Two characters separated by the LOC but joined by the moon they gaze at, by the rain that drenches them – it’s that kind of melodrama, where nature unites what humans divide. Early on in the film, a celebratory dance in bright light and brighter colours gives way, in the next scene, to stormy skies and the rustle of dead leaves when Dalbir’s child dies – it’s that kind of melodrama, where nature reflects human suffering, even commiserates with it, like a solicitous decorator who keeps changing the wallpaper to suit your mood. Animals and birds chip in too. Sarbjit (Randeep Hooda) is first seen with pigeons on his outstretched arms, and when he dies, one of them flutters across the screen, as though his soul is rising to the skies. The best moment of pure visual melodrama comes when Sarbjit, in prison, receives his first letter from home. It’s slipped into his cell, and the minute he begins to read it, the lights go off. But nature steps in to compensate, through a shaft of light that streaks down from a high window. Sarbjit slips his hands through the bars of his cell and holds the letter up to the light. This is where you know a master from an apprentice. Had Bhansali filmed the scene, you’d have felt the gooseflesh.
Omung Kumar doesn’t have the craft to manufacture intense poetry out of intimate moments – and in its absence, he has to rely on a prosaic screenplay that must have read like a Wikipedia page. It’s fact after rushed fact. Daljit goes to Pakistan! Pokhran happens! Dalbir petitions the Prime Minister! Kasab happens! Dalbir gets help from a lawyer! Unfortunately, a lot of this is played at a fairly realistic scale, where the melodrama isn’t in the genre but in the overbearing style. Listening to the high-pitched score during a scene of torture, you’re not sure who, exactly, is being hung upside down and whipped: Sarbjit or the players in the string section. A character actually yells, “Door karo isko hamari nazron se,” a line probably last heard circa Bahu Begum. It isn’t just the Westernised eye of the Akhtar siblings that’s accelerating the demise of this very Indian mode of storytelling. It’s also filmmakers like Omung Kumar, who dive into it without knowing how to swim.
And without the scaffolding of a strong screenplay, we begin to yearn for characters rather than archetypes. Everyone’s a type – Wife, Husband, Sister, Brother, Daughter – and the few moments that work are when we get a glimpse of the people they really are. There’s a good scene where Sarbjit’s wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chaddha) gently reproaches Dalbir for her unceasing martyrdom, and another in which Sarbjit’s daughter rails at her aunt. “Apni is ladaai ko hamaari zindagi mat banaao,” We suddenly see what it must be like to be the daughter of a father who’s only in newspapers and on TV and on missing-person posters. But we need a transition scene to show how this daughter reconciled herself to meeting her father in prison. It’s a moving moment with the whole family reunited, but it feels incomplete because of the loose emotional strands.
This is a remarkable real-life story, with remarkable emotional peaks. When Sarbjit receives his first letter in prison, his name is struck out, and the name “Ranjit” is written over it – that’s whose crimes he’s being accused of. Dalbir gave this man his identity back. She made him “Sarbjit” again in front of the world. This is also the story of collateral damage in two countries. A Pakistani father still mourning the loss of his son has this to say when Dalbir insists her brother is innocent. “Begunaah to donon parivaar hain, par sazaa to kaat rahe hain na?” Another nice line – between Dalbir and Sarbjit’s Pakistani lawyer (Darshan Kumar) – harks back to simpler times, a simpler India. “Apne bhai ke liye lad rahi hoon main,” she says, and asks what his motive is. He simply says, “Main bhi.” I misted up a wee bit. How can all this result in such a dull movie, which is neither a gripping familial drama nor a tense legal thriller?
Every time we see Hooda, we see a slightly better movie. He’s showier here than he usually is, employing techniques from the I’ll Starve Until My Ribs Show school of acting. But he has a mad glint in the eyes and he moves like a broken puppet. I did not understand half the lines he said, but I understood his pain. As for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, she’s clearly given it her everything – and in the South Indian Heroine Trying To Pass For A Punjabi sweepstakes, she certainly scores over Hema Malini in Ek Chadar Maili Si. But the character isn’t in her comfort zone, and it shows. She’s best when playing spunky achievers (in Mani Ratnam’s and Bhansali’s films, or in Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj), and her worst instincts come out when she plays characters who are sad and suffering. The director doesn’t help her either, asking her to do ridiculous things like break down in a mustard field, or accost a man carrying an orange. And for someone not exactly known for her dialogue delivery, she gets far too many speeches – in between looking for her brother, she seems to be contesting in the Wagah elections. She’s more eloquent in the silent anguish that passes over her face when her child dies. All these years on, the camera still loves that face.
I can’t vouch for the veracity of her Punjabi accent, but it sounds very odd – and I kept wondering if there’s something else, something more than just how good an actress she is (or isn’t), something about the person she is. In older times, all we knew about Waheeda Rehman outside of her films was, say, that she used Lux soap, but with today’s 24×7 media coverage, how easy is it for actors to make us forget purple-lipsticked appearances in Cannes? I think I’m trying to say that an actor’s off-screen persona is a much bigger contributor to their on-screen performance today than it was earlier. Maybe a Neerja worked because Sonam Kapoor’s character was more-or-less Sonam Kapoor, give or take a few crores of personal net worth, but much as we try, it’s really hard to see a very visible brand ambassadress for L’Oréal sweating under a Punjabi sun, trying to fit the snapped strap of a dusty rubber chappal back into its toe-hole.
- Sarbjit = see here
- pind = village
- Mary Kom = see here
- Mother India = see here
- “Door karo isko hamari nazron se” = get lost, but in an old-style-Hindi-film manner
- Bahu Begum = see here
- “Apni is ladaai ko hamaari zindagi mat banaao” = Your battle is not our life.
- “Begunaah to donon parivaar hain, par sazaa to kaat rahe hain na?” = Both families are innocent, but they’re being punished.
- “Apne bhai ke liye lad rahi hoon main” = I’m fighting for my brother.
- “Main bhi” = Me too.
- Ek Chadar Maili Si = see here
- Sarkar Raj = see here
- Neerja = see here
- rubber chappal = flip flops
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.