Omung Kumar’s Sarbjit is a film trapped in no man’s land. Based on a newsy real-life story, it takes cavalier liberties with reality. The result is a disappointment of monumental proportions. Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan is woefully miscast as the dogged sister of the titular character. But, then, what do you expect from a director who roped in Priyanka Chopra to play Manipuri pugilist Mary Kom on the big screen and got away with it? The earlier decision was batsh#t crazy. This is ill-advised at worst. But that does not make the final outcome any better.
Aishwarya as Dalbir Kaur, a gutsy woman who put everything at stake in the fight for the release of her brother from a Pakistani jail, neither looks nor sounds like a true-blue sardarni. Her tinny dialogue delivery and wayward diction come in the way and prevent the film from acquiring any genuine heft and height. And that by no means is the only problem that besets Omung Kumar’s persistently shrill but ineffectual drama. It has no clue where to draw the line between actuality and falsification. The film tilts overly towards the latter because much of what is set in a Pakistani jail is driven more by the filmmaker’s imagination than by any recorded evidence. While the makers of Sarbjit could be lauded for attempting to tell an important story, the methods that they employ for the purpose are utterly out of place. Sarbjit reimagines the plight of a Punjab farmer who, in 1990, strayed across the border in an inebriated state only to be mistaken for a terrorist and thrown into a Pakistani jail from which he never got out.
It reduces a poignant human drama to outright Bollywood pulp with unimaginative treatment and a tendency to ratchet the melodrama up to a crescendo at every available opportunity. The director strives to whip up emotion when all he has to do is let the story flow on its own steam, given the tragedy that is inherent in it.Because of the manner in which the female protagonist is projected, she never comes across as the real-life heroine that she was. As painted by Omung Kumar and played by Aishwarya, Dalbir Kaur is a caricature. In one scene, she even launches into a harangue directed at a Pakistani mob raising slogans against Sarabjit’s release. She accuses the Pakistanis of being prone to stabbing us in the back and extols India for its courage to take all the blows on the chin and fighting on. Not quite Gadar territory, but Sarbjit is almost there! Sarbjit Singh Attwal, etched out admirably by Randeep Hooda, is not allowed to go from a playful villager to an anguished victim of fate without the usual degree of raving and ranting.
The gratuitous songs and ear-splitting background score divert the attention of the audience away from the pathos of the situation. The screenplay makes no attempt to link Dalbir Kaur’s crusade on behalf of Sarabjit to a trace of guilt that she might have felt for her role, however indirect, in precipitating her brother’s fate. On the day that changed Sarabjit’s life, Dalbir admonishes her younger brother for his waywardness and locks him out of the house. As Sarabjit’s protests fall on deaf ears, a friend whisks him away for a binge. He has too much drink and when the revelry ends, he takes off in the wrong direction never to return home. But the circumstances in which he ended up on the wrong side of the border is never brought up again. Dalbir Kaur is cast in the mould of an unbending fighter for elusive justice. Amid all this, Sarabjit’s wife, Sukh (Richa Chadha), is pushed to the background and is only occasionally allowed to get a word in edgewise.
The script seems more intent on giving the heroine a platform to holler and hector her way though than on crafting a balanced narrative that tracks the impact of Sarabjit’s disappearance on the family as a whole. Randeep Hooda is an exceptionally gifted actor and has clearly put in a lot of effort to get into the skin of the character. But he is let down by the creative choices that the writer (Utkarshini Vashishth) and the director make on his behalf. Richa Chadha chews up everything in the frame every time she is allowed some elbow room. Unfortunately, she has only two and a half scenes at best in which to display her wares. It is obvious that the strategy is to not let her upstage the ‘bigger’ star. With the star not shining all that bright and the actors in the mix not allowed to play the game their way, Sarbjit is a well-meaning outing that fails to do justice to its subject. Watch it only if you are an Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan fan no matter what.
Watch the trailer: