Review: ‘Sam Bahadur,’ starring Vicky Kaushal, Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra

December 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Vicky Kaushal in “Sam Bahadur” (Photo courtesy of RSVP Movies)

“Sam Bahadur”

Directed by Meghna Gulzar

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various countries in Asia, from 1933 to 1973, the dramatic film “Sam Bahadur” (based on real events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Sam Manekshaw rises through the ranks of the Indian Army while being involved in several political conflicts and international wars.

Culture Audience: “Sam Bahadur” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in seeing a biopic about a famous military leader, but the movie’s storytelling approach is stiff and overly sterile.

Fatima Sana Shaikh in “Sam Bahadur” (Photo courtesy of RSVP Movies)

“Sam Bahadur” is nothing but a “checklist” biopic that ultimately does a disservice to Sam Manekshaw. By making him look too good to be true, this erratically edited movie robs him of his humanity and depicts him as an unrealistically perfect hero. His relationships that were deep and meaningful in real life are rushed through in the movie and ultimately portrayed in a shallow manner.

Directed by Meghna Gulzar (who co-wrote the lackluster “Sam Bahadur” screenplay with Shantanu Shrivastava), “Sam Bahadur” (which means “Sam the Brave” in Hindi) takes place from 1933 to 1973, the years that Manekshaw was in the Indian Army. Born in 1914, in Amritsar, India, he began as one of the first cadets in the Indian Military Academy and rose through the ranks and eventually reached the highest level of the Indian Army, by being promoted to field marshal. He was the first person in India to achieve this military ranking of field marshal.

Vicky Kaushal gives a fairly competent performance as Manekshaw, but he’s not entirely convincing as an elder Manekshaw. (For the purposes of this review, the real Sam Manekshaw will be referred to as Manekshaw, while the character of Sam Manekshaw in the movie will be referred to as Sam.) Except for an early scene where cadet Sam is punished for being late after partying the night before at a pub with some friends , Sam is portrayed in the movie as someone who doesn’t do anything wrong and doesn’t make mistakes. It’s all very hokey and not believable.

The movie shows various political conflicts that Sam was involved with in his military career, such as India’s participation in certain wars. They include fighting in Burma during World War II (while India was under British rule); battling with Pakistan over control of Kashmir; and being in conflict against China in the Sino-Indian War. The combat scenes are very generic. And so are the conversations and performances in the movie.

Sam also experiences clashes with Indian government colleagues who view him as a threat to the power that they want. The movie gives half-hearted portrayals of the lingering effects of British colonialism in India. The story’s main throughline of showing India before and after British colonialism is Sam’s interaction through the years with David Cowan (played by Paul O’Neill), a British military official who knew Sam from when Sam was a somewhat rebellious cadet at Indian Military Academy to after Sam became a high-ranking military official. (India became independent from the United Kingdom in 1947.)

“Sam Badahur” has a very superficial depiction of Sam being severely wounded in Burma. After getting shot in the chest by a Japanese soldier, Sam is taken to an emergency medical tent, where a doctor asks him what happened. Sam jokes, “I got kicked by a mule.” His painful and difficult recovery from his near-fatal wounds is glossed over in the film. The movie makes it look like his recovery is quick and he had no real long-term effects from this trauma, which wasn’t the case in real life.

Sam’s courtship of his wife Silloo (played by Sanya Malhotra) is also rushed through the movie. Sam tells Silloo soon after meeting her that he’s going to marry her. A few minutes later in the movie, they’re married, with no real context of how their relationship developed.

Sam and Silloo become parents to two daughters, but hardly anything is shown in the movie about how these spouses are as parents. There a few scenes where Sam tells Silloo that he’s been ordered to be stationed at a military base where families aren’t allowed. However, the movie barely explores the strain that these separations put on their marriage.

Instead, “Sam Bahadur” is mostly a series of scenes where Sam is either on a battleground, a military base or in a conference room, with the occasional home visit. Various government officials and other colleagues are shuffled through Sam’s life, including Indian prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru (played by Neeraj Kabi) and Indira Gandhi (played by Fatima Sana Shaikh), who makes Sam her trusted ally. Sam is depicted as someone who always emerges triumphant whenever he encounters a jealous rival. The movie erases any personality flaws that he might have had in real life.

With a total running time of 148 minutes, “Sam Bahadur” certainly had the time to be a more insightful look into who the real Manekshaw was in his career and in his personal life. However, the movie’s uneven editing (some scenes are too short, while other scenes meander for too long) brings down the quality of “Sam Bahadur,” which is filled with uninteresting dialogue and bland depictions of fascinating, history-making people. Ultimately, “Sam Bahadur” gives Manekshaw and the people around him the “encyclopedia” treatment instead of the substantially engaging story that they deserved.

RSVP Movies released “Sam Bahadur” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 1, 2023.

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