Sporting a sharp beard and wavy hair, Vicky Kaushal looks like he is promoting Animal. “The look is for Chaava, the story of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj,” he quickly clarifies as we head for a chat. Right now, the versatile actor is making heads turn with his portrayal of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the iconic military leader of modern India who fought in five wars and won us the 1971 Bangladesh war. “It has been a blessing. Very few actors get the opportunity to live and understand a life like his. It has taught me a lot that will stay with me.”
Director Meghna Gulzar says that Vicky, whose evocative portrayal of Sardar Udham Singh is still fresh in our minds, was her first and only choice for playing Sam Bahadur.
Meghna gets into a new direction every time she wields the megaphone. This time, she says, the challenge was bigger because she set out to make a biographical film of an Army officer. “I have started not with a jawan or a Lieutenant but straight away with the biggest of them all, the Field Marshal.” Starting with Manekshaw’s ADC (aide-de-comp) Brigadier Behram Panthanki and his military assistant Lieutenant General Deepinder Singh’s books, she reels out the long list of research material she used to keep the look and feel of the film authentic. Depicting his “ dynamic” with former Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Meghna says, was the most challenging part. “Whatever is out there, whatever he has said in his interviews, I am hoping we have captured well.”
Interestingly, Meghna refers to Manekshaw in the present tense. “The honest and principled man that he is, Sam is timeless. I realised recently that I don’t talk about Sam in the past tense, for I think his values and principles can never get outdated or go out of style. He should have been celebrated much earlier. But there is a very selfish part of me that says it’s good he wasn’t for it gave me an opportunity to make a film on him,” grins Meghna.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Meghna, there is a lot of debate on the idea and degree of patriotism. What is your take?
Meghna: I feel that patriotism has many interpretations, and it should not be straitjacketed. I can love my country in many ways without shouting myself hoarse. I can do it in small ways by being a righteous and loyal citizen. Sam’s actions and the way he lived his life makes one feel patriotic. He always put the Army and the country first; that was his interpretation of patriotism.
But Sam also commanded deep respect in Pakistan when he visited the country after the 1971 war because of the humanitarian way in which he had treated the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, something which had never happened before. He had magnanimity. When he came to know of a Pakistani soldier who fought against his jawans, he recommended his name for a military citation to his counterpart in Pakistan. For him, a soldier is a soldier. He is a judicious person and that’s why he is loved even today.
Why did you cast Vicky, a quintessential Punjabi boy, to play a Parsi?
Meghna: Sam was also Punjabi. He was born in Amritsar and spoke fluent Punjabi and commanded a company of Sikh soldiers in the Second World War. The character required an internalised performance, and the actor had to look convincing playing the part from 20 to 60 years of age. He had to look as loveable when punching his jawans on their shoulders, as when he is telling politicians to politely stand down. Vicky is that actor. He has expressed both aspects with the same level of humility. There was no two minds about it.
Vicky, as an actor who transcends different styles of performances, how did you delineate Sam from your role in ‘Uri’ that came under the scanner for promoting hyper-nationalism?
Vicky: I try to be honest to the world that I have been put in, be it Uri or Sam Bahadur. Finding the truth of the character is the bare minimum I can do. Whenever I get a specific character, I know I have to be true to its grammar and that of the story. When you go on the war front where your troops have to charge, you don’t know how many of them will return the next day to the breakfast table. These are the words I used to hear from the Special Forces who had gone into enemy land at the time of preparing for Uri. There is a way that they charge each other, and at that point, they are not concerned to be politically correct. They are just focused on being truthful and honest which makes them do the thing that they are assigned to do.
With Sam Bahadur, the process was more research-oriented because he is the man who has left a humongous legacy when he went on to serve for 40 years in the Indian Army, fought five wars, and reached the highest rank in the armed forces. I had to understand those ranks and what they demand. First, I tried to crack the surface, like how he used to walk and talk because we didn’t have any visual reference of his younger days. We met his family members who helped us with his go to gestures. Then I worked on bringing alive the spirit, the flamboyance, and his internal swag. And, of course, the humour which really stood him apart. It can’t be worn on the surface. It has to reflect from deep within, otherwise, it would look superficial. We really wanted to crack that.
Did Sam leave some residue on your soul?
Vicky: 100%. For the first time in life, I tried to see life solutions through a character. I always ask myself now how Sam sir would have responded in a particular situation. His courage to take a decision when the stakes were high, really left a mark on me personally. To tell the Prime Minister and the Cabinet that this is not the right time to go to the war takes guts. He asked for 45 days for preparation, and then delivered the results in 13. That courage for owning your decision is something that has stayed with me.
Of late, big banners are either giving you awful scripts like ‘Govinda Naam Mera’ or are not publicising their films enough like ‘The Great Indian Family’…
Vicky: The question is whether the audience is recognising the talent, and I think they are. I don’t think any film or character is unnecessary and there is no moment in life which is irrelevant and will not help you grow. Every film comes with its own destiny, and you accept that. You never know which film will be the game-changer, and make you one in the eyes of the critics and the industry.
Sam Bahadur is set to release on December 1 in theatres