'Sarbjit' Review: A '90s Potboiler Masquerading As A Biopic

20/05/2016 12:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan sure knows how to ruin a good thing.

In the case of Omung Kumar’s Sarbjit, however, there isn’t even much of a good thing to ruin. As Dalbir Kaur, the protagonist of this movie, Rai Bachchan delivers a screechy, overpitched performance Sunny Deol from Border would’ve been proud of. But then, in light of Bollywood biopics we’ve seen in the last few years, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

This one is based on the real-life incarceration of Sarabjit Singh, a farmer who strayed into Pakistan and was immediately arrested under suspicion of being an Indian spy. The first thing that strikes you about Sarbjit is how entirely uninterested it is in being a good film or even an interesting one. It is a film made to ‘entertain’, which apparently is (still) shorthand for ‘a movie that assumes its audience has never watched a movie before’. So, obviously, there’s more emphasis on dialogue-baazi and melodrama than there is on character development and storytelling.

Still, it can be said that Sarbjit, simply on the basis of its moving true story, has some sort of power. Hooda plays the eponymous character, with early scenes showing him as a devoted husband to Sukhpreet (Richa Chadha), a man who likes to wrestle, laugh, and have a good time. Dalbir and he share a deep bond, she having practically raised him.

The early scenes are fairly standard, but carry with them a sort of warmth that is easy enough to digest, if not like. The village they live in, Bhikhiwand, Punjab, is at the border of India and Pakistan, and this is the ‘80s, when the animosity between both countries wasn’t quite at its peak. A drunk Sarabjit strays across the border (one of the film’s many ‘stagey’ scenes) and disappears for many months. Dalbir, rather than the reticent Sukhpreet, leads the search for him.

Rai Bachchan plays this strong, real-life character (who was present at a screening held for the press in suburban Mumbai on Thursday) with little nuance. In the hands of a better actress, it would have been very interesting to see the contrast between Dalbir’s doggedly determined public persona and her more vulnerable private moments.

The script, by Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri, acknowledges this range in her character (in a clumsy, direct sort of manner), but Rai Bachchan’s histrionics aren’t sophisticated enough to convey this fully. Watching her act often feels like riding in a vehicle that runs on only two gears: neutral and overdrive. After a point, it seems like she’s just screaming at everything without any real emotion guiding her.

randeep hooda

Randeep Hooda in a still from 'Sarbjit'

Hooda, who underwent a shocking transformation for this role (he lost roughly 28 kg to look like a tortured prisoner), is much more effective. As he grows weaker and weaker over the course of 23 years, his speech gets mangled and he becomes a shadow of his former self — the only character in the film whose graph is clearly visible. A melodrama-soaked scene, in which he sees his family for the first time in years, is salvaged by him somewhat, even though all I could think about while watching it was how hilarious the same scene would’ve been without background music (an acid test of sorts I use to see if a scene stands on its own merit).

He — and Chadha, who makes the best of a low-key character (although this is one of her least effective performances) — deserved a better screenplay than this, which unfolds with the elegance of a 'Did You Know?' comic you'd find in an edition of Tinkle Digest. There are no surprises, no real insights to be gained; it's all just information. Every scene takes place exactly where you’d expect it to take place. The staging is predictable. The dialogues, many in Punjabi, are standard-issue. And, of course, if all this wasn’t enough, there’s a loud background score to explain to you how dramatic all of this is, which would’ve been fine if it weren’t omnipresent.

One small mercy is that the film isn’t exactly jingoistic at heart and attempts to further the idea that India and Pakistan are essentially the same country. But the way things are depicted, especially a scene in which Dalbir says of Pakistanis that they are experts at backstabbing (with good reason, at that point), it’s likely that many portions will be interpreted as being anti-Pakistan. This is what happens when a good idea is dumbed down — a tragedy tends to lose its complexity and becomes a convenient tool for propaganda.

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