Seeing some of the scathing reviews for Sarbjit I was tempted to fish out the early reviews of a film released in 1975 which was condemned by critics for being “loud” , “brash”, “plotless” and “over-dramatic”.
That film was Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay.
Sarjbit is no Sholay. Thankfully. But I firmly believe its forceful message on prisoners of politics and its persuasive emotional velocity in the scenes showing the imprisoned man’s sister’s and wife’s suffering, would be acknowledged in retrospect as remnants of a truly remarkable cinematic achievement.
The sister is played by the helplessly beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan who rises valiantly to confront and embrace the sister Dalbir’s anguished and defiant fight to the end to free her brother. This is Dalbir’s story, more than Sarbjit’s. And yet it’s also a film that doesn’t spare us Sarbjit’s anguish.
Sarbjit is not a film that holds itself back. It is a stormy rousing chest-thumping epic saga of a sister who rages against the injustice of her brother’s incarceration across the border. Director Omang Kumar adeptly weaves scenes of family ties and their rude rupture through a skilful pattern of bright flashbacks and dreadfully pessimistic present-times when Sarbjit, locked up in a dingy cell far from home, mourns for the loss of freedom.
The film has tremendous visual velocity. Whether it’s Randeep’s Sarbjit locked up in a cell large enough to house a rat, or shots of Dalbir strolling forlornly amidst a bloom of yellow flowers, cinematographer Kiran Deohans captures the innermost sanctity of hearts torn asunder by political violence.
The sibling theme is treated with an exacerbated energy by Omang Kumar. The lengthy sequence where the family meets Sarbjit in his dingy prison cell in Lahore is outstanding for using cramped spaces to convey an emotional infinitude. Later there is another sequence where the sister shares a meal with Sarbjit in the same confined space.The two actors specially Hooda fill that space with a hungering sibling love .
This is not a film that believes in subtleties. Kumar lets it all hang out. The background music, the dubbing and sound effects are amplified to augur an operatic angst.The volume is upped to a crescendo.The scenes of Sarbjit’s torture and his sense of suffocation inside his dingy kerchief-sized cell are vividly captured.
There is also redemption amidst despair when clutching a letter from his family Sarbjit suddenly finds all the lights of the rathole of a prison being put out. He then holds the letter in one beam of light that becomes the life-force for a life being rapidly snuffed out.
A moment such as the above is so lyrical it transcends the political vitality of the tale that throbs at its temples like an urgent migraine.
Director Omang Kapoor demonstrates a firm grip over the proceedings. The actors do the rest. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is in ample, and amplified, command over her character’s gutsy endeavour to break down the defences. Though the performance gets shrill at times, it never loses it power. Although she remains inevitably glamorous her performance gets progressively clamorous as the tragic finale approaches.
Randeep Hooda’s physical transformation as a traumatized prisoner is astonishing and convincing. He invests life-enforcing power into his role of a man who is locked away from home until his death. His demeanour as a dying prisoner, so frighteningly authentic is matched by his tireless spirit when he tells his sister that the name Sarbjit roams free all over the world because of her crusade to free him.
While Darshan Kumaar as a compassionate Pakistani lawyer (yes, the neighbours are portrayed as humane) and Ankur Bhatia in a very brief part as Aishwarya’s husband merge into the tragic fabric of the real-life saga with effortless candour, it is Richa Chadha as Sarbjit’s wife who is the real surprise. In her melt-down scene when she reminds her tireless sister-in-law of their mutual losses of time and hope, Richa expresses a deep yearning for those of us who feed on memory. Powered by heart-breaking restrain and screaming silences this is Richa’s most accomplished performance to date. Makes you wonder what the film would have been like if it was told from Sarjbit’s wife’s perspective.
As for this being Ms Bachchan’s Mother India, I am not too sure if hyperbole is an option here. Sarbjit has immense poignancy at its heart. But the execution of the theme of a homesick dying man imprisoned in a hostile country often tends to lean dangerously close to populism. Sarbjit manages to keep its head above the water even while the proceedings frequently revel in crowd-wooing conventions like singing dancing and rabble-rousing rhetorics.
For all its concessions to high drama and populism Sarbjit is a moving testimony to these troubled times when cross-border politics overpowers humanism. There is still hope.