Meghna Gulzar teams up with Vicky Kaushal, her leading man from the 2018 espionage thriller Raazi, to offer a cinematic tribute to Sam Manekshaw, the first Indian Army officer to be promoted to the rank of Field Marshal. Sam Bahadur captures the high points of Manekshaw’s personal and professional journey but in an overtly idolatrous tone.
The 150-minute film weaves in Manekshaw’s early days at the military academy, his romance with Silloo Bode (Sanya Malhotra) and his heroic survival in Burma during World War II while recreating a charismatic figure known for his impeccable dressing sense, culinary skills and famed bluntness in dealing with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Manekshaw’s pivotal role in the 1971 war, depicting his strategic brilliance that aided Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) in facing off America and defeating the Pakistani army, is one of the film’s highlights.
Sam Bahadur’s strength lies in its production values, notably the detailed art direction in set design and costume that transports viewers back in time. But its structural shortcomings become apparent as it follows a rather simplistic narrative path. Unlike the other Vicky Kaushal-starrer biopic, Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham Singh (2021), whose nonlinear structure made it an arresting watch, Sam Bahadur opts for a conventional summary of episodes — often rushed — from Manekshaw’s life.
Sam Bahadur also joins the growing repertoire of Bollywood movies centred around the Bangladesh Liberation War — Shyam Benegal’s Mujib: The Making of a Nation and Raja Krishna Menon’s Pippa being two additions in the past month alone. However, Meghna Gulzar’s film stands out for its extensive use of archival footage in depicting historical events.
Where Sam Bahadur succeeds is in extracting a high-spirited performance from Vicky Kaushal as Field Marshal Manekshaw, mixing the character’s idiosyncrasies with an authoritative screen presence without crossing over to the caricaturish. But the focus on Manekshaw’s rise through the ranks is so heavy that character exploration is often compromised. Sanya Malhotra as Silloo fades into the backdrop, exposing limitations in integrating a wife’s role in an army-centric biopic.
And while the movie depicts the harmonious relationship that Manekshaw shared with Indira Gandhi, highlighting their capacity to understand and appreciate each other’s viewpoints, Fatima Sana Sheikh comes across as too demure as the Prime Minister who was known for her feistiness. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of Yahya Khan catches one’s eye despite the uneven characterisation.