Sam Manekshaw – AKA Sam Bahadur (“Sam the Brave”) – lived through some extraordinary periods of change. Born into an India ruled by Britain, he joined the army and fought for British-Indian interests against Japan in the second world war. On partition in 1947 he was assigned to a new unit, as his previous regiment was now part of Pakistan’s armed forces. He later oversaw India’s part in the Indo-Pakistani war, which led to the formation of Bangladesh, and became, in 1973, the first Indian army officer to be promoted to the rank of field marshal, just as he retired.
This historic framework could make a rich basis for a Colonel Blimp-style look at how values and politics shift around an individual as they age, but in the event, that’s not how the makers of this biopic approach their subject. No doubt with a view to India’s current surge of nationalist sentiment, and with input from Manekshaw’s family, director Meghna Gulzar attitude is rather more straightforward. Manekshaw is presented throughout as a hero, consistently correct, noble, witty and forgiving. Whether he’s standing up to politicians, boxing a rival or charming his future wife, the guy can do no wrong, and the charming Vicky Kaushal is well-cast in the role.
The film is at its most watchable when dramatising fun anecdotes from Manekshaw’s life. When he takes a round of machine-gun fire to the chest, nobody thinks he can survive. A doctor asks Manekshaw what happened to him; he replies that he was kicked by a mule and the doctor determines that any man with such a sense of humour must be saved at all costs.
Where this approach lands the film in trouble is in the overall shape of the drama – the incidents and set-pieces are neatly done, but the structure is somewhat episodic. It’s a perennial problem for biopics; how to give events the momentum of fiction when the underlying narrative is fact. This leaves the film feeling like a demonstration of the variously attributed maxim that history is simply one damned thing after another.
• Sam Bahadur is in cinemas from 1 December.