Synopsis – Biopic of Sarabjit Singh, a farmer residing at Bhikiwind, Punjab, near the Indo-Pak border, crossed the border after having a couple of drinks. However, he was mistaken to be an Indian spy and was sentenced to capital punishment.
My Take – With his second directorial effort its pretty obvious, director Omung Kumar enjoys bringing out real life stories and turning them into dull insignificant films. Based on the 1990 real life incident of how an Indian farmer Sarabjit Singh crossed the India-Pakistan border and was arrested by authorities there. He was jailed and accused of spying for India and setting off blasts that killed 14 people in Lahore and Faisalabad. Though Singh denied these charges, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The death sentence was stayed indefinitely in 2008, but he remained in jail there till 2013, when he was murdered, allegedly by other inmates. With a story like this the film could be a hard hitting drama on the wrongs of the judicial system in both countries along with portraying the amount of struggle Sarbjit’s family went through to earn his freedom. But just like his previous effort, director Omung Kumar reduces this inspiring story into soul less snooze fest in favor of glamourising the lead actresses non coherent acting capabilities. Yet, thanks to the presence and superb performance of the very under rated Randeep Hooda, this film is atleast a decent watch. The film’s well-intentioned effort is bogged down by an inadequate screenplay that just cannot do justice to the 23 years of Sarabjit’s trauma, his family’s anguish and his sister’s undying fighting spirit which is lost in Omung‘s tendencies to focus more on the more trivial things. There was a time, Sarbjit Singh was the topic of hot discussion on news bulletins, triggering thought-provoking debates. People had found themselves polarized between the questions – Was he really a spy or an innocent man who got drunk and crossed over the border? Well, our director here tries to make a pure homage film. He sticks to the version of Sarbjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur’s without meandering much from what she has told them about his life.
At this point, it is necessary to point out that Omung never creates a hero out of his titular man. The story follows an Indian farmer Sarbjit (Randeep Hooda) who lives with his wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chadha), two infant daughters and his widower father. When Sarbjit accidentally crosses the border in a drunken state and is jailed on charges of spying, his sister Dalbir (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) swings into action. Knocking on the doors of every official in and across the country who can help her. Meanwhile, Sarbjit wastes away, his wrestler’s body and mind eaten up by his tortures and miserable conditions and the lasting regret that he was in the wrong place in the wrong time. Thus follows a 23 year long battle to get Sarbjit to justice and back in the arms of his family. Despite the title, it’s Dalbir who drives the story, refusing to accept her brother’s seemingly inevitable fate and making enough of a ruckus this side of the border to buy him a longer lease of life at the other end. By the second half, even Hooda, who is convincing in the initial sequences, cannot be unaffected by the overwrought air around him and contributes his own overly dramatic bits to a movie that refuses to quiet down. The fact that the film favors emotional manipulation over restraint or logic is evident at several points, but one moment in particular stands out. After years of incarceration in a Pakistani jail, Sarbjit Singh is announced to be set finally free. We see him emerge smiling from behind the guards at the border and cross over to the Indian side. As his sister, Dalbir, wife Sukhpreet and daughters rejoice, he kisses the ground. Then, without any noticeable change of perspective, we see a different person standing where he was. The Pakistanis have released another prisoner in his place, Sarbjit’s still in prison and the scene we’ve witnessed is a lie. Imagine if director Omung Kumar had played this moment straight. It would have been a kick in the gut, to see hope fade from the faces of the family members once they realize their 23-year wait for Sarbjit isn’t over. But by going too far—by trying to wrench that extra tear from the viewer—Kumar and screenwriters Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri squander the emotional possibilities of the moment, initially confusing and then irritating the viewer. Which is also the story of the film at large, instead of just diving into the subject at hand. Are we ever told of the investigations on Sarabjit? Or there being any possibility of him being a spy? It is all done too conveniently without taking the other side’s view point into consideration. No wonder the film lacks thrill or suspense, failing to command our interest at a stretch. There is not a single pertinent question asked. Besides, there is too much propaganda. If you don’t believe in Dalbir’s version, you’ll feel the lady had her own vested political interests in getting Sarabjit back home. The human drama is too flaky and the writing is just not convincing. We are told Sarabjit is falsely accused of being Ranjit Singh Mattoo, who masterminded five blasts in Pakistan. Somehow, Omung’s Dalbir becomes a sharp investigating officer who has all the evidence against Ranjit. At another point in the film she is a world leader, championing the cause of human rights. Now that is just of the many far-fetched things the film shows. We aren’t even bringing forth how the family manages their finances without any source of income or how a certain lawyer Sheikh sahib takes over the case.
This is the kind of movie in which emotions are deemed unworthy of existence unless they are screamed out with every sinew strained. Were it stripped of its insistent melodrama, the film might have been an interesting (if heavily fictionalised) account of an ordinary family caught in the midst of a geopolitical war. The screenplay by Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri has its share of anti-Pakistan sentiment, but it takes cares to humanize ordinary Pakistanis, who are shown as helping Sarbjit, whether it’s smuggling letters to him in prison or standing up to represent him in court despite criticism (the lawyer Awaid Shaikh’s character is played by Darshan Kumar). The writers put Sarbjit’s fate against the backdrop of repeated terrorist attacks on India, but the jingoism is dialed down to the minimum requirement. They also slip in the point that there are many Sarabjits in Indian prisons. Some moving sequences survive the delirium like Sarbjit persuades Dalbir to give up the corpse of her stillborn child or twenty year later reunion of the family in the prison. The focus of the film is as much on Dalbir Kaur as on Sarbjit. Owing to the single-dimensional manner in which Aishwarya interprets her character, the film is never allowed to settle into a realistic rhythm. In a completely miscast role, there is no doubt Ms Bachchan is moved by the character she is playing. Neverthless shrill screams and red eyes cannot be deemed as a good performance. Richa Chadda, despite being pushed to the background with the obvious intention of letting the biggest name in the cast hog all the limelight, grabs the opportunity offered by the couple of scenes that she has to herself and shows why she is one of Bollywood’s most natural actresses today. Darshan Kumar excels in his small but significant role. The one and only reason to watch this movie Randeep Hooda’s performance. He is fantastic in every frame. His voice changes over the years, he perfectly looks his part. There is fear in his eyes, there is hopelessness and yet, his rebellious side is never far away. Even as his life remains restricted in square boxes of different sizes over the 23 years that he lived in Kot Lakhpat jail, he craves for his name to be free, to come to be the face of liberty. I suggest you should watch this film at least once for him. He makes his pain your own with his pitch-perfect rendering. Well, only if good intentions could make good films, Randeep’s efforts wouldn’t be lost in this dramatic mess. For all the effort he has put into this movie, he definitely deserved better. The only reason you remain invested in this flimsy screenplay is because of Randeep Hooda. On the whole, ‘Sarbjit’ is a hollow and obscure take on a real life story which forces us into false consolation, which would not have been the case if the focus remained mainly on Randeep Hooda.
Directed – Omung Kumar
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 133 minutes