In the last few years, the Hindi film industry has churned out biopics at regular intervals. While many films made in this genre were celebrated, there were some that didn’t manage to impress the audience. The Meghna Gulzar directed ‘Sam Bahadur’ belongs to the former category. The film, which was based on the life of celebrated Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw released in cinemas on December 1st and has been going steady at the box-office since then.
Shreas Pardiwala, who was given the responsibility of portraying Brigadier Behram Panthaki in the film, feels grateful about the love the film is getting and the congratulatory messages coming his way post its release. To get into the skin of the character, which was modelled on a real life hero, the actor did a good amount of research before commencing shoot. In this interview, Shreas talks about the experience of playing a real-life person on screen, collaborating with Meghna Gulzar, sharing screen space with Vicky Kaushal and more.
Before you were approached for ‘Sam Bahadur’, did you have any idea about who Sam Manekshaw was?
Yes, I was very much aware of the wonderful work Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw had done as an army man. A big reason behind it was the fact that he belonged to the Zoroastrian community. I belong to the same community. Whenever people from the Zoroastrian community meet, there is always a discussion about those Zoroastrians who have made the community proud. Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw was somebody whom the Zoroastrian community would always speak in high regard of. A dear family friend of mine is related to him. I also had the opportunity to work with Jehan Manekshaw who happens to be his grandson. Years ago, I had done a theatre installation at the Kala Ghoda Festival and Jehan was directing it. My grandparents had the privilege of meeting him in Coonoor years ago.
As an actor, you get the opportunity to play characters who come from different parts of the world and practice different faiths. Behram Panthaki is a Parsi gentleman and so are you. What does playing a Parsi character mean to you?
I had played a Parsi character earlier in the web series ‘Akoori’. While representing my community on screen is a good feeling, I had a different approach for playing Brigadier Behram Panthaki. As Brigadier Behram Panthaki, I was not required to showcase any trait or idiosyncrasy one associates with people belonging to the Parsi community. I had to actually focus more on representing somebody who is a part of the Indian army. For an army man, religious identity is secondary. He is an Indian first. Being a Parsi added a beautiful layer to the character. However, what remained predominant is that he is an Indian first. Your community is your nation and the army. The religion comes after that. In the film, you do not see a glimpse of Brigadier Behram Panthaki’s personal life. What you saw on the screen was an army man, an individual who is loyal to his nation and doing his duty diligently.
A bunch of books have been written on Sam Manekshaw. Interestingly, there is one co-authored by Behram Panthaki as well.
Yes, it’s a coffee table book that is biographical in nature. Before I met Meghna ma’am, I had done a little preparation. I had seen videos of Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw and Brigadier Behram Panthaki on the internet. Those videos featured a senior Behram Panthaki. In the film, I had to portray a younger version of him. I wanted to get an idea about how the Brigadier was in his younger days and the kind of equation he shared with Field Marshall. However, I was not able to get my hands on any such video or written material for the longest time.
I wanted to know about the traits or characteristics of Brigadier Behram Panthaki. When an individual puts pen to paper, their inner thoughts come out beautifully. When I got to know about this particular book on Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw co-authored by the Brigadier and his wife Mrs. Zenobia Panthaki, I decided to read it. I remember buying the book from an online store and using it as my research material. There were several interesting anecdotes in the book. I got to know that Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw was very witty and attended the Brigadier’s wedding as well. The book helped me get an idea about the bond shared between Brigadier Behram Panthaki and Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw.
A couple of weeks back, I was in London. There, I had the wonderful opportunity of interacting with Behram Panthaki’s cousin and niece. I stayed in touch with them and they invited me for a webinar recently. We were on a Zoom call and suddenly, I saw the name Behram Panthaki pop up on the screen. Soon enough, he switched on the video and I was stunned for a moment. I got to interact with him through this webinar and it was a huge honour for me. He was extremely gracious and a thorough gentleman. He lives in the US but I had the opportunity to meet him recently in Mumbai. I told him that I used the book, co-authored by him, as a reference point during the film and if he and Mrs. Panthaki could sign it, which they kindly obliged to.
Most of your scenes in the film were with Vicky Kaushal.
Vicky is a thorough gentleman. He is a very classy man. I remember meeting Vicky for the very first time during the script reading session for the film. He was extremely kind and sweet. I distinctively remember my first day of shoot on the film. It took me a couple of hours to get my hair and make-up done. I was on the set and suddenly, I saw this tall man walking beside me. In that man, I didn’t see Vicky Kaushal but Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw. I don’t think anybody could have played the Field Marshall’s character as well as he did.
People speak very highly of his performances in films like ‘Masaan’, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ and ‘Sardar Udham’ and rightfully so. However, I told him that I also loved him in films like ‘Love Per Square Foot’ and ‘Zubaan’. He was pleasantly surprised to know that I had seen those films. Every time we would meet, Vicky would greet me with a warm hug. Once he meets and interacts with somebody, he never forgets them. He is one of the most incredible human beings I have met in my life.
How was the experience of working with Meghna Gulzar?
In my screen acting career, I have worked with more female directors than male directors. ‘Yaariyan’ and ‘Sanam Re’ were directed by Divya (Khosla Kumar) ma’am, ‘Hindmata’ was helmed by Srishti Jayin and now, I had the wonderful opportunity of working with Meghna ma’am in ‘Sam Bahadur. I feel women understand the nuances of human emotions very keenly. There is a certain sensitivity they bring to the films they make. Meghna ma’am has a keen eye for detailing. She is very particular about getting every detail and information right.
On the first day of my shoot on the film, I was standing outside my vanity van. Meghna ma’am was walking beside me. We greeted each other and she went inside her vanity van. A few minutes later, one of her assistants came up to me and told me that Meghna ma’am feels the colour of my moustache was lighter and needed to be darkened. She also remarked that my hair parting should be left to right and not right to left. She could spot these things just by looking at me once. You can see all these details in the film. When I would rehearse the dialogues, she would even correct my nukhtas. The entire team was incredible. Working on ‘Sam Bahadur’ was a blessing.
The film has been doing steady business at the box office. How do you look at the response coming your way?
I feel extremely happy. Working on a film like ‘Sam Bahadur’ was a huge honour for me. Through this film, many have got to know about all the wonderful things he had done for our country. And, those who already knew a lot about him, are happy to see his life being depicted on the celluloid. Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw was the pride of the nation and served the country in the most beautiful way. His story has been told by Meghna ma’am in a phenomenal manner. The events in the film have been shown in the most honest and authentic manner. He is somebody who should be celebrated every single day.