Sam Bahadur has a lot going for him. It follows Meghna Gulzar’s previous two critically acclaimed films, Talvar (2015) and Raazi (2018). It stars Vicky Kaushal, who has played men on a mission against the nation’s enemies in both imaginary and real-life roles in Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) and Sardar Udham (2021). Finally, it tells the story of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, a near-mythical behemoth who survived despite being shot nine times by a Japanese soldier during WWII.
For the longest time, you twitch and squirm in your seat, waiting for that defining moment of cinematic genius. When writer Bhavani Iyer and director Meghna Gulzar strive to make you laugh, you crack up. And yet, at the end of it all, the point of Sam Bahadur is utterly lost on you. I left the theater feeling like I’d just been given a fresh retelling of the annual online listicle you read on Manekshaw — famous feeder of the humble pie even to the country’s then-Prime Minister, proud owner of the bushy handlebar moustache and dispenser of bangles and battlezone aphorisms.
Biopics are a risky genre since most of them follow an episodic structure and are constrained by the principles of truth and brevity. What distinguishes a film of this type is how and where the core conflict is centered. It was the loss of the protagonist’s security clearance and how the film coiled itself around that in Oppenheimer, which came out earlier this year. Sam Bahadur chose to present Manekshaw’s story without any narrative pyrotechnics, divergence, or questioning Manekshaw’s recent adoption as the ideal sigma male.
It is so intent on enjoying the benefits of bringing his legend to life on film that it ends up presenting a hagiography. In fact, Manekshaw’s Pakistani equivalent, Yahya Khan (Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub), is given greater subtlety (albeit not without some terrifying aging makeup and prosthetics).
Vicky Kaushal is the one thing that keeps you interested in this picture. After a mostly disappointing year in terms of characters created for him in Govinda Naam Mera, Zara Hatke Zara Bachke, and The Great Indian Family, Sam Bahadur allows Kaushal the type of magic to work that he has demonstrated in Sardar Udham, Raazi (2018), and Masaan (2015). Manekshaw’s walk, altered vocalization, and well-renowned easy charm and quick wit would appear like a caricature in the hands of a lesser performer, but the ever-confident Kaushal retains a strong grasp on the character. His honesty and self-acceptance off-screen transcend nicely into the protagonist’s optimism and unflinching trust in his ability.
Sanya Malhotra, who plays Sam’s beautiful wife, Silloo Bode, provides an emotional anchor to the Manekshaw home, complimenting his maverick spirit with the ease she has shown most recently in Jawan and Kathal. The film constantly implies that Manekshaw’s victories come at the expense of Silloo and their daughters. However, Fatima Sana Shaikh’s portrayal of Indira Gandhi is primarily shaky, which can be attributed to the casting decision.
The music in the film is loud, noisy, and unmelodic (the war song Badhte Chalo is incredibly vapid and inelegant), which is unexpected given Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s apparent musical skill and the trio’s previous fantastic collaboration with Gulzar, Raazi. Sam Bahadur, in addition to a mediocre background soundtrack, makes great use of historical video to keep the narrative moving and provide documentary weight to the proceedings, yet even this contributes to the film’s passive linearity and staccato temporal jumps.
In the different portions of Manekshaw’s life that comprise the film’s storyline, Sam Bahadur can be regarded as pleasant and engaging. They are incredibly brilliantly shot, created, and played (kudos to cinematographer Jay I Patel for his work on the air strikes and action sequences in Burma) and may just make it worthwhile to see this larger-than-life vignette reel in theaters. However, the threads that connect them, such as Manekshaw’s banter with his radio set-carrying cook, the leading man and his lady’s ballroom meet-cute — or the sequence in which he is seen making the wildly popular declaration about Gurkhas and fear, feel disjointed and desperately need to be cut some slack due to the film’s largely upbeat tone.