Sarbjit: A Cry In The Endless Night
Dark, hard-hitting, raw, gripping. These are all banalities. ‘Sarabjit’ is like a punch to the solar plexus. The degradation a man can face at the hands of another human being…the tangible despondence as hope slowly ebbs, leaving nothing but a bewildered resignation in its wake…
The movie is a biopic on Sarabjit Singh Attwal, a farmer who lived in Bhikhiwind village of district Taran Taran in Punjab, along the Pakistan border. Apparently he got drunk one night and strayed across the LoC, whereupon he was found by Pakistani soldiers and hauled off to Lahore jail. Subsequently, Pakistani authorities charged him with being Manjit Singh who was alleged to have been responsible for a series of bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad. Under repeated torture, Sarabjit succumbed to the inevitable and accepted his name was Manjit Singh, following which he was given the death penalty. He managed to smuggle a letter out to his sister Dalbir Kaur almost a year later; until then, his family had absolutely no idea where he was.
Dalbir Kaur took it upon herself to tirelessly campaign for his freedom, claiming he was unjustly accused of the crimes committed by another man. Although the Pakistan government commuted the capital punishment to one of life sentence, despite the evidence and the prisoner’s retractions, they continued to insist the hapless man was Manjit Singh, until the real Manjit was apprehended and finally, the Pakistanis accepted that the bundle of rags in their jail was indeed Sarbjit Singh. A life sentence term in Pakistan is for 14-years; by the time Asif Ali Zardari was president, Sarbjit had already served 22-years and his family as well as pind were jubilant that he would soon be released. However, events took an unforeseen turn with the Mumbai bomb blasts and the attack on Parliament House in Delhi, following which Afzal Guru was given the death penalty. Things took an ugly turn in Pakistan and Zardari fumbled his way through bureaucratic bullshit saying he had meant Surjit Singh would be pardoned, not Sarbjit Singh and that the media was to be blamed for the confusion in name.
While all the furore for Sarabjit’s release was gaining momentum, not only in India but in other parts of the world, the capital punishment on Afzal Guru was carried out, in the wake of which Sarbjit was attacked by inmates of the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore where he was incarcerated. He was grievously injured. His sister, wife and two daughters were allowed to visit him in hospital just before he breathed his last in May 2013.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of the man on whom the film was made; it is important to present the facts as they are. Harking back to my first paragraph now, it was written solely for Randeep Hooda who, essaying the role of Sarbjit, has etched possibly the finest performance of his career. It is not just about losing weight or the torn, blackened nails; it is about getting under the skin of the real man, of projecting the abject despair, the frustration, the dread, the yearning that a condemned man goes through. The torture scenes are stark and matter-of-fact. While the jail scene, when his family come to meet him, is emotionally charged and easily the best in the movie, his “salamat ho” impassioned monologue conveys thwarted hope and anguish. There is no doubt that Hooda has done complete justice to the role, going above and beyond what the director asked of him, not only in terms of the emoting but in getting the thet Punjabi accent to perfection.
Aishwarya Rai plays his sister, Dalbir Kaur and, since the movie is told from her perspective, she naturally has the meatier part. Not for nothing has she been called the most beautiful woman in the world; she looks quite stunning as her ‘younger’ self. As she ages though, she goes from looking jaded and defeated to almost a hag. I could still live with that, if the director had not seen fit to make her practically screech her dialogues. Aishwarya has worked very hard for this movie; unfortunately, the effort shows!
A barely-there Richa Chadha plays Sukhpreet, the wife. Her strongest scene is soon after Dalbir tries to commit suicide. Darshan Kumar is Pakistani lawyer Awais Sheikh (about okay) while a wooden Ankur Bhatia is Mandev, Dalbir’s husband.
Utkarshini Vashishta (also dialogues credit) and Rajesh Beri have written a fairly creditable screenplay although, as in most biographies/biopics, we will never know exactly when fact blurred into fiction. For instance, I find it hard to believe that in 1990, there was no proper fencing along the Punjab border – surely Sarbjit was not the first drunk to have gone in for nocturnal amblings! Those white milestones, evenly spaced with ‘Pakistan’ written across, look suspiciously like theatre props. Did/do the Pakistanis keep their prisoners in chests rather than cells – is there any corroboration to this effect? (I accept the cell itself is probably authentic enough as the real Dalbir Kaur would have described it.) Also, the scene where the four women go to visit Sarbjit in jail is unnecessarily portraying the Pakistanis in the “bad-guy” stereotype; any jail would do a strip-search of visitors for an inmate on the death row. Further, I don’t know why a blasted biopic would mess with the facts and rename ‘Manjit Singh’ as ‘Ranjit Singh.’ I also find it more than a little odd that Sarbjit’s elder daughter would have gotten married in the midst of a death sentence hanging over her father – not sure if this happened in actuality or whether this is cinematic license.
Make-up (Subhash Shinde/ Bhagyalaxmi Padhya) deserve a sharp rap across the knuckles! While Dalbir is aging by the nano-second, with brown pancake et al, Sukhpreet and Mandev look pretty much as they started out! Rai’s hands look extremely well-manicured for a village belle; no matter how much she ages though, she has a stylish, loose plait throughout with some artfully escaping tendrils. I also have no clue why someone thought fit to dress her in those shapeless kurtas.
Cinematography by Kiran Deohans is fairly competent. Rajesh Pandey could have given some more thought to the editing; the songs pop up out of nowhere and we have two numbers, the hyper-hysterical ‘Tung Lak’ and ‘Rabba’ following close on the heels of each other. Music is by Jeet Ganguly, Amaal Malik, Tanishk Bagchi, Shail-Pritesh and Shashi Shivam – I don’t know why we needed all these people? In a bleeding-heart biopic?? Even Arijit Singh manages to sound off-key while Shafqat Ali is high-pitched.
I think the person I have the most beef with is director Umang Kumar. Having made one biopic earlier (his debut film, ‘Mary Kom’) he probably considers himself the guru of reel-over-real but this ain’t true, no siree. Considering the wealth of information that was, one presumes, readily made available to him, why on earth would he opt to have all these filmi leitmotifs of high-pitched drama? If he was a serious film maker who wanted to realistically portray the angst of a man wronged – and his suffering family – would he bung in these senseless songs – NINE songs – and the Yash Chopra-like full-bloom sarson-ka-khet shot? Has he learnt nothing from assisting on ‘Black?’ The mind boggles.
I would go so far as to assert that ‘Sarabjit’ belongs firmly to Randeep Hooda, with a little help to Aishwarya’s brimming, expressive eyes and precious little credit to the director of this film.
In summing up, I’d like to present the other side to the real-life story. Like most people, I am guilty of having read about the Sarbjit case and dismissing it fairly quickly from the mind (for which I admit to feeling a massive dose of guilt after watching Hooda’s enactment.) While most people believe that Sarbjit was a simple farmer who strayed across into Pakistan by mistake, when Sarbjit succumbed to his injuries in 2013, there were a flurry of media reports that alleged he was a RAW agent and was, in fact, caught while trying to escape from Pakistan all those years ago. We shall never know the truth, as super spies are not in the habit of leaving behind personal diaries nor do their bosses believe in kiss-and-tell! The grim and sad reality that does come to the fore though, is that the Geneva Convention notwithstanding, torture and indeed extreme, primitive and sadistically cruel methods of torture, are inflicted in the name of misguided patriotism, religion or what-have-you, by one human being on another. I would actually be okay on an immediate, firing-squad kind of execution for a spy, rather than this long-drawn out incarceration than destroys not just a man’s body, but his very spirit.
*Written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India