Searching for Sarbjit

MUMBAI,NAMRATA JOSHI:Every life doesn’t necessarily yield a compelling on-screen biopic. Though Sarbjit Singh and his family’s story, when seen from the perspective of his sister Dalbir Kaur, is an immensely tragic tale of wasted lives and relationships, the film seems to lack the vital dramatic grip to keep the viewer invested in and engaged with the fate of the characters. What the film does have in ample measure are portrayals of interminable struggles, candle light protests, hunger strikes, paperwork, ineffectual officialdom on the India side and the protracted incarceration and inhuman tortures on the other side of the border. Not quite the kind to set the screen on fire.

Sarbjit a farmer from Punjab, alleged to be terrorist Manjeet (called Ranjeet in the film) Singh in Pakistan, was convicted for the Lahore and Faislabad bomb attacks of 1990. While the family version claims that he innocently strayed into Pakistan (which the film also upholds) in a drunken stupor, the Pakistan side has been consistently painting him as an undercover agent of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). His death sentence kept getting postponed till he was killed by his Lahore jail inmates in 2013 and his organs went missing mysteriously.

Omung Kumar is unable to fashion an affecting script out of more than two decades of a family’s futile fight against the political and diplomatic machinery. Instead of a coherent narrative the film feels utterly disjointed, more like a random stringing together of sequences which at times seem have no bearing on each other. The film moves in fits and spurts, without a focus, in all directions and back and forth in time. The characters and relationships are sketchily grounded. The closeness of the siblings is stated but there is nothing on screen to make us believe in the bond. The brother-sister chemistry, the bhai-behen ka pyaar doesn’t leap out from the screen. Similarly, Daljit’s failed marriage is left very vaguely drawn and the reconciliation just as hasty.

On top of that the director doesn’t seem to know how to calibrate emotions well. He goes overboard with melodrama, is so overtly manipulative that it leaves the various portrayals seem like cardboard cut-outs than throbbing with real life. So you have Aishwarya Rai as Daljit who is loud, made to scream and shout and weep buckets to show her anguish. But her pain still doesn’t move the viewers. However, it’s in the quieter portrayal of grief—at the loss of her newborn for instance—that she seems far more affecting, but even here the director stretches the moment way too long for comfort. On the other hand, a fiery actress like Richa Chaddha, who plays Sarbjit’s wife, is kept largely in the background and only given a momentary outburst to justify her presence.

The Punjabi accent of every character seems at variance with the other though they all hail from the same village in Tarn Taran district. In some cases the accent comes and goes at convenience.

There is a heavy handedness and righteousness with which the film tries to jump into the Indo-Pak relations issue. The oft-repeated talk of the legacy of hatred across the border is a big yawn. Then, just like in Mary Kom, director Omung Kumar tries to wring the patriotic emotions too. But his brand of jingoism is more cringeworthy than emotianal. Kumar, also tries to take up the cause of all the illegal detentions on either side of the border as well. There’s far too much packed in a little over two hours.

It’s left to Randeep Hooda who plays the titular role, then to make the film watchable. And he tries to give Sarbjit his all. The hard work and seriousness of his approach is visible—in the getup, in the Punjabi he speaks (the only character who uses the lingo decently in the film), in the mannerisms, in the odd sense of humour, even in the awkward dance moves. The actor in him is clearly trying to come on his own. Now, for a film where the weight of the effort doesn’t hang so heavy that it shows.