Meghna Gulzar is a director who is known for the in-depth research she carries on much before the script reaches the shooting floors. Her latest biographical fiction Sam Bahadur, a biographical film that tries to explore the depths of Sam Manekshaw’s rise to becoming India’s first Field Marshal of the Indian defense forces lives up to this belief.

Biographical films are a dicey issue, especially when dealing with a real-life personality who has carved a place in history. Apart from the historical accuracy of details demanded by these films, the fleshing out of the historical personality is the biggest challenge for any filmmaker.

Sam Bahadur falls in this category. It bears proof of being founded on solid research, not just on the history that saw the growth and development of one of India’s most brilliant defense officers, but also the work she has put in to flesh out each and every character that finds place in this film.

His full name was Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw but he was referred to by people who knew him and interacted with him personally and professionally, either called him “Sam” or referred to him as “Sam Maneckshaw.” The film opens with the new-born infant originally named “Cyrus” then changed to “Sam” as the other name was considered unlucky. Then, we are directly taken to his evolving into the greatest defense officer from the ground level to become the Field Marshall.

The script also focuses on the people associated with Sam in his long and triumphant career in and off the field, his slips and negative experiences are brought across extremely well through the stellar performance of Vicky Kaushal who, through his internalization of the character, brings Maneckshaw to real life, he is so good. This must be Vicky Kaushal’s most outstanding performance in his budding career in films.

Giving company to Megha Gulzar in writing the script are Bhavani Iyer and Santanu Srivastava who have put in their best in creating a credible performance and creating captivating frames be it the battlefield with sounds of guns and bombs in the background, soldiers marching across waiting to fire, or die in battle, or trying to inspire courage to face death if needs be for the sake of the nation.

The scenes with Yahya Khan who later became the administrative head of the newly formed Pakistan when the two became close friends are powerfully depicted thanks to the marvelous performance by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub who is turning out to be an excellent actor. Sam shows and expresses clearly, time and again that the defence forces in India are not puppets of the political system. He denied the offer of the newly formed Pakistan’s head of defence because he loved his motherland till death.

The film is replete with documented newspaper clippings, pictures, film clips, footage of the Indian war situation beginning with the bombing of Burma (now Myanmar) by the Japanese and closing with the 1971 war, the change in prime ministers over Sam’s tenure post independence invests the film with the feeling of a war documentary which is apt in a biopic on a war veteran.

But his relationship with India Gandhi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) when she assumed Prime Minister-ship following her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s (Neeraj Kabi) demise is weakened mainly because of the weak performance of Fatima who fails to invest the portrait of Indira Gandhi with her cool, her confidence and her maturity that reached far beyond her years.

Sanya Malhotra as his wife Siloo who he declared will be his wife at their very first meeting at a party, is better. But her insecurity in his friendship with the beautiful PM is unwarranted because Sam’s character has remained untainted right through his life and career. Nehru’s brief appearance touches a weak point too as he appears to have been fleshed out and uncertain about strong decisions which is distanced from how history has depicted him. The song Badhte Chalo is intruded into with the phrase “Jay Ho” and the long songs in a film on a war hero sounds a bit loud and superfluous, both.

The film shows quite powerfully the challenges he faced, including efforts to label him ‘anti-national’ by someone close, and showcasing his candid behaviour, such as playfully referring to Indira Gandhi as 'Sweetie.' He addresses a female journalist as “Sweetie '' and when she finds him addressing others the same way including the PM, she says, smiling, “Oh! So you call everyone Sweetie! I thought you were flirting with me,” and Sam flashes his charming smile at her.

Vicky Kaushal has taken great pains to imitate from documented film clips, the way Sam walked a little bent with his hands together behind him, his blue eyes, his legendary moustache so much in detail that at times, it becomes difficult to separate him from the character he is playing which is saying a lot as Sam was a Parsee while Vicky is not.

The iconisation of Sam during his lifetime as he went on climbing the ladder of fame, power and success comes across the film, complete with beautiful editing and apt cinematography, both of which must have worked as challenges for the respective craftsmen, must be seen through the film to be believed.

However, the film remains almost entirely silent about Sam’s growing up years, which includes his dreams of joining the defence forces, his schooling years, which leaves a massive gap of information and education that shaped him up to what he became in life. As a boy, Manekshaw was mischievous and high-spirited. His early ambition was to study medicine and become a doctor like his father.

He completed his primary schooling in Punjab, and then went to Sherwood College, Nainital. In 1929, he left the college at the age of 15 with his Junior Cambridge Certificate, an English language curriculum developed by the University of Cambridge International Examinations. In 1931, he passed his Senior Cambridge (in the School Certificate of the Cambridge Board) with distinction.

Manekshaw then asked his father to send him to London to study medicine, but his father refused on the grounds that he was not old enough; in addition, he was already supporting the studies of Manekshaw's two elder brothers, both of whom were studying engineering in London. Instead, Manekshaw entered the Hindu Sabha College (now the Hindu College, Amritsar), and in April 1932 sat his final exams held by the University of the Punjab, passing with a third division in science. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Leaving all this out makes the film an incomplete biopic in my opinion. Passing references to Parsee lifestyle, culture and food through some peeps into Sam’s family which includes a Southern cook appear like consolation sticks of roses put in as afterthoughts in the film. Why his two daughters are left out completely is a mystery.

Sam Bahadur however, sets a brilliant example on a war hero’s growth that is part-fiction but extremely detailed in terms of technique and training and other paraphernalia demanded by a film on an iconic war hero including the choice of the main cast and the actual framing and choreographing of the war, pre-war and post-war scenes. Take a bow, Meghna Gulzar and team.