When we first see Sarabjit Singh (Randeep Hooda), he has his arms stretched out like he is in a Karan Johar-Shah Rukh Khan film. Only he is not calling out to the leading lady of the film or his fans – he is just there with white pigeons (or doves? This is apparently a common question.) perched all the way from shoulder to wrist on both sides. Aman Ki Asha anyone? A celebratory song follows and he is even bathed in white flour. So this is that kind of a film. But Sarbjit also belongs to another kind. The melodrama that tortures you into submission. As Sarbjit lies in a mess of his own filth in a Pakistani jail, we are pounded endlessly to make a mess of ourselves.
Before his trial and during his torture, Sarabjit’s prison uniform number is 47. The year of Partition and the continuing events of today. Twenty three years later (Sarabjit was taken into custody by Pakistani authorities in 1990), at the height of a post Ajmal Kasab world, his prison uniform number is 26. Omung Kumar never misses an opportunity to remind us of these events. At every step, we are asked to feel something. It is a Muslim kid who brings Dalbir Kaur (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) in front of a TV, informing her that Sarabjit’s face was on the news. We follow Dalbir everywhere, to every office in Delhi, every PCO booth and in case you were wondering where she stayed while in the capital, there too. A CM’s security guard hits her on the head with the back of a gun. If that wasn’t enough, a listless Dalbir sits down right in the middle of the street refusing to budge. The whole thing is played at such a high pitch that the ache forms in your head instead of your heart.
Kumar is intermittently saved by the writing department. We see how playful the family is, consisting of Sarabjit, his wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chaddha) and their two daughters along with Dalbir. At one point his sister is mad at him for spending too much time wrestling with his friends. The fateful night of Sarabjit reaching a point of no return happens on the day his family locks him out of his own house as a playful punishment. The other build up that almost succeeds is when the family arrives in Pakistan to meet him. As an elated Sarabjit is cleaning up, tidying his cell and preparing tea, a family dressed up for their life’s moment is strip searched, their food checked for poison, their hair clips thrown away. It still works only in the writing. Kumar exaggerates this too loading it with the watch glancing by the daughter, the food, the overzealous security guards and reunited family members whose performances are at odds with each other.
One wonders how a role reversal would have played out here. What if Richa Chaddha had played Dalbir and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sukhpreet. Of course the star value is not going to allow that but Chaddha, a proven performer, hasn’t played a role at this pitch before. Rai, flawless face remaining so through the glasses and white mane, can only use her reddened eyes and shrieking so much, to play a woman whose lifeblood is sucked out of her over two decades of struggle. It would have been interesting to see Chaddha handle it, as the wife’s role offers only a couple of scenes to shine in.
Padded upon all this is a two-faced message. One is all about peace and pardoning and unity that is mostly just pop psychology. If you are really going to try pop psychology, do it the Bajrangi Bhaijaan way of wrapping it neatly in dollops of humor and memorable characters. The other is a form of chest-beating that is at its worst embarrassing. Dalbir gives a speech about being Hindustani and delivers an open message to the Taliban when fatwas are issued in her name. It is not surprising coming from a director who chose to play the whole National Anthem at the end of his previous film. Sarbjit cannot decide if it is aiming for unity or fiery rhetoric. But Omung Kumar’s gravest sin is reducing melodrama to its one line definition. It is a trope that can pay dividends even today when in deft hands. For that you need someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)