When posters of the film carry not the face of the actor playing the titular character but the star backing the project, you know exactly what you will get.
‘Sarbjit’ , based on the story of a man incarcerated in a Pakistani jail for over two decades, while his sister fought a dogged battle for his release, opts for high-pitched saccharine-laden melodrama : the star is equally high-pitched, leaving the actor to bring up the rear.
Sarbjit’s story has been well-documented. He lived with his family—old father, wife Sukh ( Chaddha), and fiercely loyal sister Dalbir ( Rai) in a Punjab village close to the Indo-Pak border. He strayed over the line one night, and was nabbed by the Pakistani patrol. That’s when his ordeal started—thrown in a box for months, limbs contorted, hung upside down and flayed till bloody, till he was forced into a false confession, and jailed.
The devastated Dalbir , ever protective about her ‘bhai’, takes up cudgels on his behalf. And she keeps going through the long and hard grind : her appeals to officials on either side of the border fall mostly on deaf ears, with only a few light-in-the-tunnel moments. (Watch Aishwarya Rai, Randeep Hooda starrer Sarbjit leaves viewers emotional on Day One)
There is heft in the story. The horror of a human forced to suffer physical and mental torture, and used as a political pawn between India and Pakistan and their see-sawing relations, is wrenching. The family is caught in a terrible cleft, neither able to forget, nor properly mourn. But the treatment is cloying and sentimental, and manipulates you into weeping without actually feeling.
A real-life tale which is inherently so full of drama and heart-break has no need to be artificially revved up. But mainstream Bollywood doesn’t know any other way to do things. ‘Sarabjit’ should have been called ‘Dalbir’, because it is Aishwarya doing all the heavy-lifting, but to distressing little impact.
First off, she is all wrong for the part, her attempts at the rural Punjabi accent slipping up every so often. And then she goes full tilt at her lines, ratcheting up the volume, to such an extent that you want to tell her to hush. When she does go silent, even if precisely for two and a half scenes, she is able to convey her pain and anguish so much better. If she had modulated her act, ‘Sarbjit’ would have been a better film.
And of course there is the superfluous `giddha-shiddha’ : when will Bollywood make a film on Punjabi characters minus this cliché ? Richa Chaddha hovers mostly in the background, with only one or two scenes which she owns. One noble Pakistani shows up, in the shape of a lawyer ( Darshan), who believes that Sarbjit is innocent. The rest is taken over by Ms Rai, straining every sinew, delivering loud lectures to both Indians and Pakistanis, and, heaven help us, Talibanis.
I did tear up a couple of times, but only for Sarbjit. Randeep Hooda is mostly shown inside his dark, fetid cell, his hair filthy, his hands gnarled. He nails the look and the accent, letting neither overpower him, and is the only reason to sit through this sagging saga.
Cast: Randeep Hooda, Aishwarya Rai, Richa Chaddha, Darshan Kumaar
Director: Omung Kumar
One and a half stars