Halfway through Sam Bahadur, lieutenant general Manekshaw (Vicky Kaushal) is sent to lead the dejected Indian forces at the China border. He reaches one of the bases and immediately whistles the troops over. “There will be no more withdrawals,” he barks. “Sam is here!” He marches off but the camera lingers and settles on one of the awestruck soldiers. “This is the sort of commander we needed,” he says. This is what Hindi directors think a film should be like now—no subtext, no shadow of a doubt, nothing between a scene and the audience’s umblemished understanding of it.
Sam Bahadur is a worshipful tribute to one of the most significant Indians of the last century. It’s also a great disservice—happy to print the legend, uncurious about the full measure of the man. The Manekshaw of Meghna Gulzar’s film, co-written with Bhavani Iyer and Shantanu Shrivastava, has no flaws that matter, no failures that aren’t someone else’s fault. It starts with Sam the ‘gentleman cadet’, a rule-breaker like the wayward soldiers in Lakshya, Shershah and Pippa. Indiscipline soon expunged from his system, he rises through the ranks, ascending to the rank of lieutenant general by 1962. By the time of the 1971 war with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh—his signal achievement—he’s chief of army staff. All the while speaking like a Wodehouse character and calling everyone from his men to the prime minister ‘sweetie’.
The film takes the blandest possible route from the 1930s to the 1970s, reducing tangled conflict zones like Kashmir and Mizoram to a few textbook talking points. The overenthusiastic score is poured over everything—domestic scenes, strategy meetings, battles. After hearing a noncommittal Lord Mountbatten lay out his plans, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel (Govind Namdev) sorrowfully mutters, “Divide and rule”. Even the social commentary is vague and insubstantial. When Manekshaw’s superiors in Delhi try to discredit him, they brand him ‘anti-national’—but all it takes is a grimly smiling testimony by Sam for the smear campaign to crumble.
One particularly promising strand is Manekshaw’s friendship with Yahya Khan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), when they were both majors in the British Indian army. We see how much Partition hurts Yahya, whereas it seems to bounce off Sam. It might have been interesting if Sam Bahadur checked back in with Yahya over the years, building up to 1971. Instead, he’s only reintroduced once the war begins, and is treated as a bloated caricature.
The best moments in the film are when the action takes over. The battle scenes are terse and effective: the bombing of the Indian troops in Burma; the night-time Pakistani incursion at Poonch. There’s not a lot of visual storytelling, but I liked the scene where Jawaharlal Nehru (Neeraj Kabi) introduces Indira Gandhi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) to Sam. She reaches across to shake his hand, obscuring our view of her father—siginaling the changing of the guard that’ll soon happen.
Sam Bahadur is a reminder that it’s devilishly difficult to make even a balanced film on the armed forces in India, let alone a critical one. All films on the military have to apply for a certificate from the Army HQ and/or Ministry of Defence. The makers of these films rely on the military for equipment, weaponry and expertise. The censor board can ask for ‘expert opinions’ from army staff and hold up a film’s release. Jawan, which had no qualms going after politicians and big business, stopped well short of assigning any blame to the army for the faulty guns that endanger the lives of Shah Rukh Khan’s team.
Gulzar is responsible for Talvar—one of the best-written Hindi films of the last decade—and Raazi (written with Iyer and featuring Kaushal), which dared to suggest that a Pakistani army family might have honour and grace. It’s disappointing, then, to see her new film reflect the depressing traits of mainstream Hindi filmmaking in 2023. A weak, ailing Nehru, betrayed by China, telling Manekshaw he doesn’t know what to do next. Indira Gandhi getting mocked, corrected and patronized by Manekshaw. Yahya Khan, obese and evil, unleashing his sadistic forces on Bangladesh, contrasted with the moral force that is the Indian army (Manekshaw tells his troops not to harm women or non-combatants; a very similar speech is made in Pippa).
Early on, it sometimes feels like Vicky Kaushal playing Dev Anand playing Manekshaw, with the dad jokes and singsong voice and crooked posture. It’s an entertaining turn but Kaushal gets caught up in the accent and the stoop. There’s no interiority, no sense of Sam the thinking individual (part of why Kaushal was so effective in Uri was the suggestion that his major genuinely didn’t have an inner life). There’s no spark between Sam and Silloo (Sanya Malhotra), right from their first meeting at a party where he tells her, “I’m going to marry you.” Malhotra is too good an actor to have to play the dutiful wife waiting at home for her soldier husband. She’s starved of material; the film’s idea of giving Silloo something to do is to have her be jealous of Indira (they glare at each other across a banquet hall). Shaikh is an intriguingly unsure young Indira, yet we never see the steely version that was surely around by the time of the 1971 war.
Sam Bahadur is hardly unwatchable—it’s just a waste of a good director, cast and subject. The film closes with a song that goes, he’s an extraordinary man, he’s god’s special man, he’s the people’s man. We get it, sweetie.