Cast: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Randeep Hooda, Richa Chadha
Director: Omung Kumar
Sarbjit is a story so terrible that it has to be true. After a night of drinking, an ordinary farmer in Punjab wanders across the border into Pakistan. He is arrested and accused of being a terrorist who masterminded serial blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad. He spends the next 23 years in prison, much of the time in solitary confinement. The long-standing tradition of heinous politics between the two countries ensures that Sarbjit and his devastated family do not find a happy ending.
But even in this absurd and appalling tragedy, there is hope, courage and perseverance so profound that ultimately, even governments are forced to take notice. Sarbjit’s sister Dalbir orchestrates a relentless campaign to free her innocent brother. She is consumed by her struggle. She makes unimaginable sacrifices and, despite the body blows — including Sarbjit’s death in prison — Dalbir endures.
From this solid material, director Omung Kumar fashions a film that is structurally clumsy and overtly high-pitched but also strongly enacted and genuinely moving. One of the biggest failings in Sarbjit is the disjointed screenplay, which jumps back and forth in time and doesn’t organically move to any dramatic high points. Writers Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri start at a high-pitch and stay there. And Omung takes it even higher by notching up the melodrama.
The contrast to the horrors of jail is established by Sarbjit’s happy early life — essentially lots of singing, dancing Sardars and general merriment. The characters seem a compendium of clichés. Little about this scenario feels authentic.
What kept me hooked were the performances. A barely recognizable Randeep Hooda is terrific as the man whose one wrong move dooms him to hell but whose humanity is never destroyed by his wretched conditions. Richa Chadha is also excellent as his wife. She speaks little but her eyes reveal an anguish so scarring that she seems almost numb.
And holding the film together is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who is both admirable and problematic. This is easily her bravest and most challenging role. As an actor, she has stretched herself to breaking point. Aishwarya’s biggest crutch has always been her blinding beauty and she entirely lets go of that. There are scenes in which she impressively holds her own. But in places she is shrill, and the accent never sits right.
And yet, despite these bumps, there were many moments when I found myself tearing up. A sequence in jail with the family thoroughly twisted my insides. Sarbjit might be heavy-handed storytelling but it has its heart in the right place.