2 Stars (out of 4)
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Much of the press before the release of Sarbjit focused on whether superstar Aishwarya Rai Bachchan would overshadow the actor playing the film’s title character, Randeep Hooda. Rai Bachchan is the dominant presence in the movie, not because of her performance but because the story is tilted in her favor, at the expense of Sarbjit and the other important figures in his life.
Hooda’s character is Sarbjit Singh, a Punjabi farmer in a small town on the Indian border with Pakistan. He’s married to the woman of his dreams, Sukh (Richa Chadda), with whom he has two young daughters. He shares the family home with his father and his sister, Dalbir (Rai Bachchan).
Dalbir has survived her share of heartbreak. Her only child was stillborn, and her marriage went south not long after due to her husband’s violent jealousy over her close relationship with her younger brother, whom she essentially raised.
Jovial Sarbjit gets drunk with his friend one night and unwittingly stumbles across the Pakistani border. Soldiers arrest Sarbjit on the suspicion of spying, and they torture him into confessing to be terrorist Ranjit Singh.
It takes eight months for Dalbir and Sukh to find out what has happened to Sarbjit, after a sympathetic jailer mails a letter to them on the farmer’s behalf. By then, Sarbjit has been moved to a Lahore prison and sentenced to death.
A lengthy Pakistani judicial process affords Dalbir decades to find a way to free her brother. When Indian politicians are reluctant to intervene — if not outright dismissive — she rallies public support to pressure them into action. Dalbir’s endeavor begins with Sarbjit’s capture in 1990 and lasts long enough to see the advent of the Internet and cell phone technology to further spread her message.
Dalbir’s quest reveals the ways in which the Indian and Pakistani governments use prisoners as proxies in their ongoing conflict. An execution of a Pakistani prisoner in India can easily spur a retaliatory execution in Pakistan. Political offices change hands numerous times during Sarbjit’s incarceration, and every change delays progress to free him.
Dalbir’s story has interesting parallel’s with Sarbjit’s. He’s driven somewhat insane through years of torture and solitary confinement, and she also loses herself as his imprisonment drags on.
Yet, it’s weird the way the story — written by Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri, and directed by Omung Kumar — prioritizes Dalbir’s relationship with Sarbjit over all others. If my brother is ever wrongly imprisoned by a hostile foreign government and we finally get the chance to see him after eighteen years, I’m letting his wife walk through the door first.
So much emphasis is placed on Dalbir that other subplots aren’t fully explored. When they are addressed, it comes too late. About five minutes after I wrote a note wondering how Sarbjit’s younger daughter Poonam (Ankita Shrivastav) feels about spending her whole life protesting on behalf of a father she doesn’t know, Poonam has her one and only meltdown. It would’ve been nice for the sisters to have at least one conversation about how their father’s imprisonment has affected them.
The story focus is further problematic because Rai Bachchan isn’t the best actor in the cast. She conveys Dalbir’s pain, but too often she resorts to shouting to make her point, even when in front of a microphone. Piercing screams aren’t the only way to show anger.
Chadda’s restrained performance is more compelling. Her stoicism begs for more screen time, a window into how this woman perseveres with her beloved husband unjustly imprisoned, leaving her forced to raise two children on her own.
Hooda is terrific as Sarbjit. He loses a troubling amount of weight as the story progresses, but his most interesting trait is the way his speech changes. Dental hygiene isn’t high on his captor’s priority list, and you can almost judge the level of tooth decay by the way Sarbjit sounds.
The movie’s torture scenes are horrific, the conditions of Sarbjit’s imprisonment barbaric. Apart from the kindly jailer and a human rights lawyer (Darshan Kumar), most Pakistani characters are convinced of Sarbjit’s guilt and happy to see him suffer.
Some scenes need more explanation in order to help the narrative flow. Given the way Sarbjit’s fate is tied to world events, it would have been smoother to show the family learning about things like nuclear tests and terrorist attacks directly, rather than inserting stock news footage as Kumar does.
Though an imperfect movie, Sarbjit is an interesting cautionary tale about the hidden casualties of ongoing tension between India and Pakistan. The song “Meherbaan” is excellent. And Hooda and Chadda are so talented that they are impossible to overshadow completely.
[Update: In a recent interview, Richa Chadda revealed her disappointment that many of the scenes she filmed for Sarbjit were cut from the final version. That goes a long way to explaining why I found the story so unbalanced.]