In her new movie Sarbjit, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan comes to work with her greatest asset – her gorgeous face. In scene after scene, Rai Bachchan flashes her eyes, curls her lips, flares her nostrils and twists her features out of shape. Sarbjit is the kind of movie in which emotions are deemed unworthy of existence unless they are screamed out with every sinew strained. It’s more labour than Rai Bachchan has ever performed in her spotty career, and if nothing else, she deserves full marks for effort.
Directed by Omung Kumar, the production designer-turned-tear harvester, Sarbjit is based on the real-life account of the unfortunate Sarabjit Singh. Singh was arrested by Pakistani border guards in 1990, accused of being an Indian spy who had been involved in bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad, and thrown into prison. His sister, Dalbir Kaur, proclaimed his innocence and campaigned tirelessly for his release. But Singh languished on death row until he was killed in an attack by prison inmates in 2013.
Opinion is divided on Singh’s real identity: was he a low-level intelligence operative who made the mistake of being caught or a farmer who strayed into Pakistan and paid heavily for his mistake? The former theory could have made a fascinating scapegoats-of-statecraft account. But it’s far easier to make a three-hankie weepie about an innocent man who suffered along with his family, and that’s just what Omung Kumar has done.
The 132-minute movie opens in the border village where Sarbjit (Randeep Hooda) lives with his wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chadha), two infant daughters and his widower father. Dalbir Rai Bachchan), who is deeply attached to her brother, has left her husband and returned to her family (in real life, Singh was part of a much larger brood). When Sarbjit accidentally crosses the border in a drunken state and is jailed on charges of spying, Dalbir swings into action. She bangs away at her sewing machine with determination, stomps through the corridors of power to persuade officials of her brother’s innocence, and delivers lectures on Indo-Pak peace on every possible occasion. Sukhpreet, depicted as a diffident and docile woman, contributes to the general hysteria by fainting at opportune moments.
Meanwhile, Sarbjit wastes away, his wrestler’s body and mind eaten up by his miserable conditions and the lasting regret that he was in the wrong place in the wrong time.
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.
Were it stripped of its insistent melodrama, Sarbjit 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 humanise 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 dialled 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. In an early scene that establishes the relationship between the siblings, Sarbjit persuades Dalbir to give up the corpse of her stillborn child – a rare moment of subtlety. A family reunion before Sarbjit’s death is bathed in bathos, but manages to be touching in its portrayal of the family’s enduring loss. In a later conversation, Sarbjit dismisses his sister’s despair that her efforts have been futile. “What have you done for me?” he tells her. “You made my name roam free across the world.”
But some of the lines are unintelligible. In an effort to reach for authenticity, much of the dialogue is in unsubtitled Punjabi. Hooda, who is from Haryana, and Chadha, who is from Delhi, manage their bits but here again, Rai Bachchan flounders. Her accent wavers wildly, but then the director did make his debut in 2014 with the similarly loud boxing drama on the Manipuri boxer Mary Kom that starred Priyanka Chopra. If Chopra could pass off as a Manipuri athlete, a dubious Punjabi accent can be overlooked.
Sarbjit has some lovely and expressive faces, but not all of them are suited for their parts. The talented Richa Chadha has barely anything to do, and gets her big moment only in a scene in which she gently reproaches her sister-in-law for her martyr complex. Hooda is similarly reduced to playing a half-mad prisoner with a gleam in his eye, evoking little else than pity.
The movie is unfortunately driven by Dalbir. Rai Bachchan has been working hard to shed her famously icy demeanour. In Jazbaa, she played a lawyer who is forced to defend a rapist in order to free her kidnapped daughter, but that performance resulted in more memes than encomiums.
Will Sarbjit suffer the same fate as Jazbaa? Rai Bachchan literally yells out her intention to be taken seriously as an actress in her new innings, but she might actually have been better cast as Sukhpreet, who passively watches her sister-in-law create dust storms while she waits for a husband who never returns. The face is still a draw, but it cannot support the strain of working overtime.