Biopics seem to be the buzz word in Bollywood. The life stories of various high profile individuals have graced the big screen in recent years, of which Indian Olympian runner Milka Singh, champion boxer Mary Kom, heroic flight attendant Neerja and controversial cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin are just a few examples.
The latest real to reel life adaptation comes Sarbjit, the true story of a poor Indian farmer from Amritsar who inadvertently strayed across the border into Pakistan territory in 1990. What ensued was his conviction of terrorism and spying and being put on death row.
Taking on the title role is Randeep Hooda who has risen in stature over the past decade carving a reputation as one of India’s finest character actors. From his early turn in Monsoon Wedding to more recent features like Highway and Beeba Boys, Hooda has excelled as playing dark, murky men with issues.
As the doomed Sarbjit his enactment is inspired. Enduring innumerable tortures, both physical and mental, Hooda’s performance shows the fear and desperation any soul would feel when placed in his dire position. His transformation from a proud Punjabi husband and wrestler into a quivering wreck of a prisoner is immensely moving.
What’s not so convincing is director Omung Kumar’s casting of Sarbjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur. The meaty part is handed to Bollywood superstar and beauty queen Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. As the fearsome elder sibling of Sarbjit, Dalbir fought tirelessly to free her brother, battling against the apathetic Indian and Pakistani governments for a staggering of 23 years. During this period Dalbir transforms from a domestically abused housewife into a toughened activist who won't stop until her innocent brother is freed and returned home.
While Rai Bachchan has the high profile needed to get this film financed, produced and distributed, her portrayal of Dalbir lacks authenticity. From her strained Punjabi accent to her unconvincing haggard look, it’s hard to see past her celebrity persona.
More convincing as the pukka Punjaban is Richa Chaddha in the role of Sarbjit’s wife Sukhpreet. Best known for her feisty character acting in films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Fukrey, Chaddha brings gravitas and emotion to a woman who was sidelined by the media in favour of her sister-in-law Dalbir.
At a running time of two hours and ten minutes, Sarbjit isn’t as longwinded as many biopics. However, what would have made the drama more enthralling would have been the removal of the unnecessary songs. Instead of adding to the tension their insertion only serves to break the narrative and allow flashbacks from past to present. Kumar commits a major faux pas with their inclusion.
Whether you have followed the case of Sarbjit Singh in the news or come to it fresh, Kumar’s film is a worthy watch. By throwing a light on the historical animosity between India and Pakistan and the crippling judicial systems of both countries, the audience is left to side with the powerless and exploited victims. Sadly these kinds of miscarriages of justice are more prevalent than we care to realise.
Watch Sarbjit trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1kYpWU7apI