The film Sarbjit ends with a black screen, with many a line dangling in the air and many ellipses allowing them to do so. It tells us what the film’s makers declare happened to the real Sarabjit Singh and his crusading sister Dalbir Kaur, what continues to happen today, and then, with much solemnity, it ends with a three-line quotation. The critic to the left of me thought it would be Rumi, the one on my right thought it would be Tagore, while I — given the theme of suffering on both sides of the border — expected it to be some wise Pakistani wordsmith. As it happens, the quote — which I was too gobsmacked to write down, given the name that popped up under it — belongs to none of these people, and is attributed instead to Omung Kumar, this film’s director.
It is a telling thing for a director, after having presented a film, to feel the need to quote himself at the end of it. I don’t remember having seen it before. It is as if he believes that we might not have gotten his message, and that these lines carved on the film’s tombstone will prove the heftiest blow. They do not. Sarbjit is an irresponsibly sloppy film, a film so focussed on artless emotional manipulation and trying to make the audience weep that it trivialises an important true-life story. Instead of a film about a wrongfully imprisoned farmer, Kumar — whose film stars Randeep Hooda in the title role — appears intent to create the story of a true martyr, even though Sarabjit, once caught, didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Yet Kumar wants to give us The Passion Of The Hooda.
Speaking of wrongful imprisonment, spare a thought for audiences trapped in the theatre while Aishwarya Rai dials up the hysteria. Hysteria, in itself, is not a bad thing, and heaven knows a loving Punjabi sister attached to a brother (who apparently got drunk and wandered into Pakistan) deserves to be more than a bit high-pitched, but the director, in his urge to sell kerchiefs, goes too far and pitches Ash in unbearably shrill territory. Rai ages with caricatured speed, both hair and skin turning grey by the scene, and her Punjabi accent fluctuates violently, from basic swallowing of vowels to hardcore chest-thumping consonant-stretching (“Srubjittttttt-uh”).
Richa Chadha, the best actor in the film, looks visibly pained by Rai — and I don’t just mean because she, as Sarbjit’s wife, resents Sarbjit’s sister. (The first time we see Chadha, she’s literally shielding her child’s ears from Rai’s shrieks.) Chadha, however, doesn’t age at all in the film, and, had Singh been in prison for another ten years, may well have ended up looking younger than her daughters. A powerful actress, she isn’t given much to do but glower — this she does excellently — and has but one big scene, one outburst, that is rather stirring despite the film around it.
Similarly Hooda, who overdoes tone, stays mostly consistent to this version of Sarbjit, and has a great scene where he finally meets his family through prison bars, and is overwhelmed by it all. This moment plays out strongly, but could have been so much more powerful without the cliched background music Kumar forces throughout every second of this melodramatic film.
Sarbjit does indeed deal with a story worth telling, but does so in the most obvious and uninspired fashion. There are a few nice things here — a good aerial shot of the Pakistani flag, for example, a scene where a man cleverly burns his own effigy, and a shot where the Singh family patriarch fixes his moustache for the camera — but the rest of it, from rattling chains to bruises that appear instantly, seem like weak moments taken from trailers of other movies. And in the middle of it all stands Aishwarya Rai, eyes open to stretching point, waggling her finger to rebuke people like an irked schoolmarm. Oh my.
Kumar’s last film, Mary Kom, had no flow from scene to scene and played through like a Powerpoint presentation on the boxer, bolstered only by Priyanka Chopra’s performance. This time around, the director tries too hard to get things to flow, starting with much cross-cutting only to end up with a highly linear and disjointed narrative with ill-suited songs. There is earnestness, however — even in Rai’s performance — but this is not an effective or emotional film. It is, in fact, the 80s Doordarshan version of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
This, however, is just my opinion. I’m sure Mr Kumar can write his own review, and quote himself on the poster.
Rating: 1.5 stars
First published Rediff, May 20, 2016