By Devdutta Mukhopadhyay and Vidya Dronamraju as part of the Dirty Picture Project.
The Leading Ladies
When we decided to review Sarabjit, we looked forward to a break from the typical mindless masala entertainer that Bollywood is notorious for churning out. Moreover, examining the ordeal faced by Sarabjit from the point of view of his sister seemed like an interesting take on the heart breaking affair.
For the unaware, Sarabjit Singh (Randeep Hooda) was an Indian farmer who was arrested by Pakistani authorities after he inadvertently crossed the border. After prolonged torture, he admitted to being responsible for terrorist attacks against Pakistan and was given the death penalty. The film follows Sarabjit’s sister, Dalbir Kaur (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), as she fights against all odds to secure her brother’s release. Besides Dalbir, Sarbjit’s family consists of his wife, Sukhpreet (Richa Chaddha) and their two daughters.
Dalbir: The Crusader Sister
The film begins with a search party frantically looking for Sarbjit who has gone missing. When their efforts prove futile, Sarabjit’s family approaches the Panchayat and seeks their help in filing an FIR. The Panchayat members are dismissive, and one of them even insinuates that Sarabjit may have another illegitimate family in Pakistan that he has gone to visit. When Dalbir objects to aspersions being cast on her brother’s character, the village elders taunt her because she is childless and does not have a family of her own. This becomes a recurring theme through the movie, and Dalbir’s inability to conceive a child and consequent separation from her husband are used to silence her at several important plot points.
In flashbacks, it is revealed that Dalbir’s daughter was stillborn and her husband blamed her for the child’s death. As the child’s body was being taken away, he cruelly remarked that her womb is cursed because it has no place for a child to thrive. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse, and two years later, Dalbir finally leaves her matrimonial home after her husband refuses to let her visit a hospitalised Sarabjit. Dalbir’s face is visibly bruised and it is abundantly clear that her husband is physically abusive. However, it is concern for her brother that ultimately convinces her to call it quits on her marriage, rather than the violence that she has been subjected to for years. The underlying message is clear: as self-sacrificing creatures, women will only prioritize the interests of one man over the other but never their own.
After returning to her parents’ home, Dalbir adopts the role of the doting but responsible elder sister. She good-naturedly indulges Sarabjit’s love for wrestling but locks him out of the house when he shirks his duties and forgets to pick up his daughter. After learning about Sarabjit’s conviction, she runs from pillar to post trying to clear his name. Her persistence earns her an appointment with the Prime Minister but she is sent back with hollow platitudes. When she tries approaching the Chief Minister after the 2001 Parliament Attacks, she is attacked by his commandos. Finally, a dejected Dalbir sits down in the middle of the road in protest, and slowly, many other people join her. Media outlets and several human rights group eventually take notice of the plight of an innocent man who has been rotting in jail for decades, and it becomes a national campaign.
In a very telling scene, a male politician tries to hijack the agenda and talk on behalf of Sarabjit’s family. However, Dalbir refuses to remain voiceless and grabs the mic. She quotes verses from the Quran and pleads with the Pakistani government to release her innocent brother. She does not want to create a false binary between Hindus and Muslims, and though well-intentioned, the speech sounds superficial and preachy. Unfortunately, Dalbir’s moralistic sermonizing becomes a recurring problem with the film.
When Sarabjit’s execution date is set, Poonam (Ankita Shrivastav), his younger daughter, tries to burn all his photos and belongings. She is tired of living a half-life, and wants to symbolically finish his funeral rites so that they can all move on. She lashes out at Dalbir and accuses her of prolonging the inevitable because she does not have a family of her own.
In a last ditch attempt, Dalbir blocks a minister’s car and gets visas for the family to go to Pakistan. The women are accompanied by Dalbir’s ex-husband and his 180 degree turn from abusive partner to gallant escort is disconcerting to say the least. With a single kind gesture, the film effectively erases his history of violence and allows him to redeem himself.
Dalbir’s spirit finally breaks when it is discovered that the prisoner who has been released is “Surjeet”, and not Sarabjit. She attempts to commit suicide but is saved at the last moment. The women go on a hunger strike to save Sarabjit but it is too late because shortly thereafter, he is attacked by fellow inmates as a part of a larger conspiracy, and he succumbs to his injuries.
Sukhpreet: The Half-Widow
By contrast, Sukhpreet is a far more flawed and human character. One of the initial scenes show her putting up missing posters across town with an infant strapped to her back and another child clinging to her leg. She loves her husband immensely, but years of waiting have taken a toll on her resolve and made her bitter. Compared to the indefatigable Dalbir, she gets very little screen time perhaps because her own struggles and disappointments do not serve to advance Sarabjit’s story. After Ajmal Kasab’s mercy petition is rejected, there is major backlash in Pakistan and only Dalbir gets a visa to meet Sarabjit. Sukhpreet is sick of being second to her sister-in-law, and remarks that as far as her husband is concerned, she and her daughters have no rights but merely a duty to wait. When Dalbir tries to commit suicide, she accuses her of trying to be a martyr. She tells her that she has contemplated taking her life on many occasions too. However, she did not go ahead with her plans because she had faith in Dalbir.
The emotional challenges that Sukhpreet faces are much more realistic but sadly, they are not theatrical enough to make the cut. Her wavering devotion to her husband and her ability to criticize the perfect Dalbir provide a much needed break from Dalbir’s forced martyrdom. She is more grounded, more rough around the edges and more real but her pragmatism is cast negatively instead of what it really is; a narrative that a lot of women can relate to.
Put To The Feminist Test
Dalbir’s over the top struggle and high-pitched calls for universal brotherhood make it difficult for the viewer to relate to her. While her devotion to her brother is admirable, she doesn’t have an identity beyond fighting for his cause. The saving grace of the movie is the realistic tension between Dalbir and Sarabjit’s wife and daughters. Women fighting among themselves and being unable to get along is a common trope used by many filmmakers. However, it works in this case because it showcases a range of different but equally legitimate reactions that women can have when faced with difficult choices.
The movie does not pass the Bechdel Test because the entire plot revolves around Sarabjit, and consequently, every conversation between the female characters is about getting him justice. Since the Bedchel Test has its own limitations, we decided to put the movie through the Mako Mari Test which looks at whether a female character gets a narrative arc that is independent of a man’s story. Unfortunately, the movie even fails this test because Dalbir’s sole purpose in life is to save her brother from the gallows, and we learn little about her beyond that.
The film’s questioning of nationalism is superficial at best and it remains loyal to the dominant narrative about terrorism. In one of the later scenes, when posed with a hypothetical situation, Sarabjit’s daughters boldly declare that they would not accept their father’s release if it came at the cost of freeing a terrorist like Afzal Guru. What is conveniently ignored is that even a “terrorist” like Afzal Guru is someone’s father, and much like Sarabjit, could have very well been scapegoated by a broken criminal justice system. With its shallow progressivism, Sarabjit is a disappointing watch that we would recommend you skip.