The film begins with the search for Sarabjit, a farmer who one night in 1990 drunkenly wanders over from Bhikiwind, a village in Punjab, India to Pakistan and is caught immediately. Then it shuttles from his family’s mission to prove his innocence and get him back, and his own agonising ordeal in jail where he suffers many atrocities so as to coerce a confession. The first half waywardly rushes through 18 years of Sarabjit’s life, barely giving depth to any of the characters in process. They include his sister, Dalbir Kaur (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), his wife (Richa Chadha) and his two daughters.
Subtlety is a word that doesn’t exist in Kumar’s dictionary. The treatment is so maudlin and shrieking that one craves for some stillness and perspective in the narrative. There are sporadic scenes of Kaur staging a protest or going on a hunger strike and terrorist attacks on India in the period that Sarabjit is in jail. The quiet, poignant spell finally arrives when the family meets Sarabjit for the first time in years. One does wonder what is Kaur’s estranged husband doing on this trip given that he had left her early on? Kumar’s way of addressing this query is by getting rid of him immediately once they return to India. The film may be titled Sarbjit but Dalbir Kaur is more central to the film. Kumar wants to lionize the sister’s struggle which is great but the way he goes about is contrived. What’s needed are scenes where we get a real sense of Kaur such as when Sarabjit lauds her for her valour and tireless efforts while she expresses her frustrations.
Of the cast, Randeep Hooda stands out as he demonstrates the emotional toll of the physical abuse and solitary confinement Sarabjit endured, making audiences empathise for the man who obtained freedom only with death. He also does a credible job with his Punjabi delivery. Chadha’s job here is to look mopey and faint whenever the need be, which is throughout the film barring a few songs. There’s just one scene to showcase the wife’s point of view in this sister-dominated act and she does well. Aishwarya Rai wails and shouts a lot and has another struggle – with the Punjabi accent. But she does shine in rare, few moments of silence. Darshan Kumar steps late in second half to play the sole good Pakistani soul in lawyer Awais Sheikh who fights for Sarabjit and is attacked by his own countrymen.
If you are looking for context on Ranjan Singh Mattoo, the man Pakistan alleged Sarabjit is, or the debate over Sarabjit’s identity, then this is not the film. This is a tearjerker in which the tears hardly flow. Sarbjit is the kind of film where as Sarabjit lays dying in a Pakistani hospital, Kaur gets a podium to stand and deliver a raging lecture. The director’s decision to end the film with his own didactic quote than with Kaur’s words is unfortunate and denies the real Kaur a platform to speak about her battle or her brother. Instead we get are photos of the man himself and his family which will make viewers more mournful for the clan than the film itself.