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'We are telling the story of our tallest hero'

Last updated on: November 30, 2023 09:35 IST
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'The moment the Army approved the script, they told us that they will give their full support and asked us for our full dedication.'

IMAGE: Meghna Gulzar's Sam Bahadur tells the life story of General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, who led the Indian Army to victory in the 1971 War. Photograph: Kind courtesy Meghna Gulzar/Instagram

Fifty two years ago, the Indian Army fought a brilliant campaign and won a glorious victory against Pakistan.

It freed a people under brutal repression and carved out a new country, Bangladesh, from East Pakistan.

The war was fought under the exceptional leadership of General Sam Manekshaw, the chief of the army staff who over-ruled then prime minister Indira Gandhi from launching an attack in April because the monsoon posed logistical problems in moving large troops and in fighting a war in the east.

'It is my job to fight and win,' the general told the prime minister in his usual forthright manner -- and India went on to win its most decisive victory, eight months later.

The soldier delivered what he had promised and when Pakistan surrendered, he let his field commanders accept the honour, preferring to stay away from the limelight in Delhi rather than in Dacca.

That was the man he was.

A man of both physical and mental courage, he was decorated with the Military Cross for his courage on the battlefield in Burma where he took nine bullets during World War II.

Time and again, he stood up for his officers and men. There are soldiers who still break into a smile or are moved to tears when they recount their encounters with him.

Fifteen years after his passing, Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw continues to be India's tallest military hero.

This Friday, two days before the 52nd anniversary of the 1971 War, film-maker Meghna Gulzar brings out the general's story in the film Sam Bahadur, starring Vicky Kaushal in the title role.

This is Meghna's third consecutive film based on real-life characters, a genre that she handles with dignified sensitivity.

"It was a blink-in-a-minute decision for me when Mr Ronnie Screwvala approached me. It is my privilege to tell this inspiring and idealistic story," she says in a phone conversation with's Archana Masih. The first of a two-part interview:


Your film opens two days before the start of the '71 War which marked the pinnacle of Field Marshal Manekshaw's military career -- and I can't help make the connection that you share your name with the river that itself plays a crucial role in the war.
Indian troops were heli-borne in the first air operation of that kind, while other soldiers crossed the Meghna river on small fishing boats in the final advance to the fall of Dhaka.
So you, yourself have some sort of an earlier connection to '71 War and the field marshal, isn't it?

It is serendipitous [laughs]. We find these most abstract connections in very strange and unexpected ways. We don't realise it, but they keep popping up.

This just makes me believe more and more that there was a higher design up there that made this film happen to all of us who have come together to work on it.

Why did you want to tell Field Marshal Manekshaw's story?

I think the story wanted me to tell it, let's put it that way [laughs]. Honestly, when Mr Ronnie Screwvala [the film's producer] approached me with this subject, I knew only two things about the Field Marshal -

  1. That he was the Chief of the Army Staff during the 1971 War, and
  2. That he was the first field marshal of our country.

That's all I knew and just that much was enough for me to say -- hmm... this is definitely an idealistic life that needs to be explored -- and it would be my privilege to tell this story.

It was like a blink-in-a-minute decision for me.

You have said that stories find you. When did this story find you?

It was towards the end of 2016 when I was just beginning my prep work on Raazi [2018]. Ronnie and I had been in conversation since the release of Talvar [2015] about working together, but we hadn't landed on a subject.

By the time we decided on telling the field marshal's story, Raazi had come into being and I was going into prep and production.

So, it's actually been with me since then. We took about two-three years just to research before we started writing.

Unlike Raazi, which was based on the book, Calling Sehmat, what went into researching this story? Did you conduct a lot of interviews with soldiers who had served with him? His family? How did you write the script of a man who was larger than life in so many ways?

We cast our net very wide for the research. The starting point were two books -- Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the Man and his Times by his ADC (aide de camp), Brigadier Behram M Panthaki (retd) and his wife Zenobia, and

Field Marshal Manekshaw, Soldiering with Dignity by his military assistant Lieutenant General Depinder Singh, PVSM, VSM, (retd).

Every fact in the film is cross-checked from three different sources because there is a great responsibility when you're telling a story like this.

The researcher Meghna Talwar did the preliminary groundwork of talking to the family and associates. This included material about him available in the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, etc.

I don't think there is any piece of information on the Field Marshal available in the public domain which we do not have. We culled material from this intensive research into a document and created a sort of Bible for it.

Once we saw that document, the story emerged. We decided on the milestones and how the story needs to be told. That was our roadmap for writing the script.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Meghna Gulzar/Instagram

What were your interactions with his family like?

The initial conversations were done by Meghna Talwar. Once we had the Bible in place, and the draft of the script, we shared it with the family.

Since the family is spread across Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Mumbai, US, we got together on a Zoom call in 2021 to know their feedback. They gave their pointers. I made notes and made the changes accordingly into the script. They saw the revised script and approved it.

I started prepping with Vicky. The Field Marshal's video interviews are from a much later time when he was 60-70 years of age, while the film covers his lifespan from the age of 20-60.

So we really did not have a barometer on how he spoke, or what was his body language as a young boy.

On one of my recces to Coonoor [where the field marshal lived post-retirement], I got in touch with Maya [his daughter] who happened to be visiting town.

I requested if I could come over to see the house. She graciously agreed and showed us his and Silloo's room.

Their dining table was covered with photographs of him, Silloo and the family. We took pictures for references and I realised that the way Maya spoke was so much like the field marshal.

I told Vicky that it would be interesting for him to meet her and just hear her speak and watch her.

I then requested Jehan [his grandson] to spend two-three days with us because genetics does play a part in how we are -- and I believed that there must be some traces of the Field Marshal as a young boy in his grandson.

The family has been incredibly supportive and immersed in this process. I'm really grateful for the faith that they have placed in us and the support that they've given us through the journey.

IMAGE: Vicky Kaushal with Meghna Gulzar on the sets of Sam Bahadur. Photograph: Kind courtesy Meghna Gulzar/Instagram

They said they have liked the film.

For Vicky and me that was our toughest screening because getting their approval is absolutely paramount.

My God, it was such a relief! They are such a gracious family.

IMAGE: Vicky Kaushal and Meghna Gulzar at Field Marshal Manekshaw's statue at Wellington, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Kind courtesy Meghna Gulzar/Instagram

This film would have needed a lot of cooperation and coordination with the army? What was that like?

The moment they [the Army] approved the script, they told us that they will give their full support and asked us for our full dedication.

They said they did not want any errors or any lapses because we were telling the story of our tallest hero.

The intent and conviction absolutely matched on both sides.

The film's intent can be gauged from the fact that the jawans are not junior artists. They are actually our soldiers.

The song Badhte Chalo has war cries of all the regiments and those war cries are being said by actual soldiers from those specific regiments.

Our requirements and requests were that specific. Even if they were not locally stationed at the place we were shooting, the army brought them in for us or we would bring them in. Their support was immense.

We really consider ourselves blessed to have this faith reposed in us and provided this opportunity.

IMAGE: Vicky Kaushal as Sam Bahadur.

And what are the locations that this film took you to?

The attempt was to go almost everywhere that the Field Marshal was. The house that he was born in [Amritsar] doesn't exist anymore, so we had to recreate it.

We shot across eight states, Fort William, [Kolkata, West Bengal] Defence Services Staff College [Wellington, Tamil Nadu], Indian Military Academy [Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand], and several army cantonments in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Kashmir and Haryana.

We were standing on hallowed ground during filming. It was incredible.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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