It was late evening on August 28, 1990. Sarabjit Singh, a young farmer from Bhikhiwind, a remote village near Amritsar in north India, was with his wife Sukhpreet and their two daughters, Poonam and Swapandeep Kaur. His elder sister, Dalbir Kaur, a mother figure to Sarabjit, was also with them, sharing the day’s happenings.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. It was Sarbjit’s friend, who had come over to ask if Sarabjit could help him with some chores in his field. Sarabjit quickly agreed and went with him.
The next time a member of his family would see him would be after 18 years.
On that dark moonless night, Sarabjit accidentally crossed over the Indian border into neighbouring Pakistan, where he was caught, accused of being a spy, arrested for illegally crossing into the country and held captive in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. He was later convicted of charges of terrorism and sentenced to death in 1991, but the authorities did not carry out the sentence as his sister began a long fight.
For over two decades, Dalbir would wake up every day determined to get her brother released from the Pakistani jail and brought to his home country to be reunited with his family. Pulling out all stops, she knocked on almost all doors, pleading with ministers, politicians and higher-ups to help bring Sarabjit back.
Fast forward to April 2016.
Dalbir Kaur, 60, is sitting in the plush office-studio of National Award-winning director, Omung Kumar.
On the wall is a poster of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who plays Dalbir in the Bollywood docudrama Sarbjit, out now in cinemas in the UAE, based on Sarabjit’s life and how Dalbir, a teacher by profession, fought tirelessly for her brother’s release.
‘For many people, Sarbjit is just another film that was being made. But for me, it was like history repeating itself. Sitting with Omung for the past year and recalling all that has happened over the decades, viewing the videos that were taken at my press conferences [calling for the release of Sarabjit] and the pain that Sarabjit’s family and I had gone through was truly traumatic,’ says Dalbir, her voice quivering.
In fact, it was the videos that caught Omung’s eye and set him thinking about making a movie on Sarabjit. He had just finished his directorial debut, the 2014 biographical drama, Mary Kom, on India’s award-winning boxer, which earned him a National Award, and he was looking for a new subject.
Director Omung says it was the videos he saw of Dalbir powerfully calling for her brother’s release that inspired him to make the movie
‘I saw the videos and just couldn’t take my eyes off Dalbir. She is such a firebrand when she talks, she commands and demands respect. I kept listening to her, and started wondering what was this story about her brother Sarabjit, what could have happened…’ says Omung.
Once he began to research more, he was quickly convinced that there was a story waiting to be told. ‘And the first star who came to mind who I felt would do justice to the role of Dalbir was Aishwarya Rai Bachchan,’ says the director, who started out as a production designer.
‘Why Ash? I wanted someone who is mature – someone who would play a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old with ease without having to undergo drastic make-up jobs. I wanted someone who commands and demands respect when she speaks. Ash is a director’s actress, she is fantastic.’
Omung had earlier worked with Aishwarya on several commercials and was good friends with the award-winning actress. ‘When I first approached her to act in my film, the script was not yet ready. But when I showed her Dalbir’s video and told her ‘‘this is exactly what I want from you’’ she immediately said yes.
‘I was pleasantly surprised. Few actors say yes so quickly. Many will say “I need to think” or “give me a week’s time”. But Aishwarya agreed in 15 minutes flat.’
The former Miss World admits that she had no reason to say no to the role.
‘When Omung came to me with the subject, it was an immediate yes. How can one walk away from telling such a story? We all continue our lives and don’t necessarily take a minute out to experience how an incident can completely change the dynamic of a family,’ says Aishwarya.
‘History cannot remain unknown. Dalbir fought for her brother’s release for over 23 years – this kind of sibling love and commitment is commendable. This story needed to be told and I thanked Omung for bringing it to me.’
Once Omung received Aishwarya’s commitment, he invited Dalbir to Mumbai and narrated the story he had in mind to her. ‘I also wanted to learn more about the nitty-gritty details – what was the first step she took when her brother disappeared? What was racing through her mind when she went to jail to meet him? How did she see her brother sitting? What was he doing?’
For information on Sarabjit himself, they had to rely on the letters that he wrote to his sister. ‘From the letters we were able to make out what happened to him during the time he was in jail,’ says Omung. ‘The four or five jail visits Dalbir made gave us some more information to piece together the story.’
Nine months after he went missing, Sarabjit’s family received his first letter, in which he said that he was being held in Pakistan on grounds of being a spy named Manjit Singh. ‘We had lodged several police complaints, asked everybody around – our relatives, friends… and were waiting for some news when we received his letter,’ says Dalbir. ‘He told us about a group of people he knew in the jail – all farmers who did not understand the nitty-gritty of political boundaries and had ended up in the jail,’ says Dalbir.
From leading protest marches with Sarabjit’s daughters to meeting top politicians such as LK Advani, Dalbir fought tirelessly
She immediately started working towards getting him released, contacting politicians and even the prime minister. Running from pillar to post and requesting anyone who she felt could help, Dalbir laboured tirelessly to bring back her brother.
In 2008, 18 years after he went missing, Dalbir got an opportunity to meet Sarabjit.
Although it’s more than eight years ago, Dalbir is unable to forget even the most minute details of that meeting with her brother. A meeting that was to last only 48 minutes. ‘My brother was a happy-go-lucky man, full of life. But when I met him for the first time 18 years later, he looked lean and dejected. He couldn’t hold back his tears in his tiny cell in jail. I reassured him that I was trying my best to get him out,’ she says.
He didn’t say much then, says Dalbir. ‘But when I met him again in 2011, he told me everything… about the life in jail, how he feared for his life… Sarabjit was worried he might never be able to meet his family and children again.’
Dalbir shared a deep bond with her little brother and lived most of her life with him and his family. She was the protective sister, his constant source of support.
For Sarabjit’s role, Omung wanted a rough and tough guy with a wrestler-like body. ‘I had Randeep in mind and Dalbir’s family, especially Sarabjit’s daughters, also wanted Randeep to play Sarabjit. So I called him,’ he says.
‘Randeep was prepared in his mind when he came to meet me. He goes into the skin of the character and becomes that person. I wanted him to lose weight, I wanted frailness. I told him that he had to lose weight in such a way that I could see his bones, it had to be that drastic. I wanted to change the concept of acting in Indian cinema.’
Since Omung decided to shoot the jail sequence first, Randeep was given just a month to lose some 18kg.
‘Somewhere Randeep felt that playing Sarabjit was an actor’s lifetime role. He knew what he had to go through to get into the character but he surpassed my expectations,’ says the director.
However, for the scenes where he was with his family, Randeep had to put on a few kilos. ‘I gave him a 20-day break and he came back all pumped up, Omung exults about his chameleon-like hero.
So was Dalbir happy about Randeep Hooda playing Sarabjit?
‘Sarabjit’s daughters – one of them runs a petrol station in the village and the other is a tax inspector – wanted Randeep to play his role on-screen, mainly because they thought he could do justice to the role. They have seen all his films. Also, Randeep has a physique similar to my brother’s. I think Randeep has really gotten into the skin of the character. He spoke exactly the way Sarbjit used to.’
Dalbir says Aishwarya has done justice to the character, and that the star channelled her voice, speaking exactly like she used to before
Dalbir, who has seen many of Aishwarya’s films, with Devdas being her favourite, feels the actress too has done justice to the character. ‘I felt it should be someone who could present the story well, because Sarbjit is a story that everyone already knows. People would want to watch it because they wanted to know the details about what happened with him. I think Aishwarya has done justice to the character.
‘In fact, all the actors have been true to their part and have portrayed the emotions beautifully, be it joy, sorrow, pain, the wait, fear, faith. I would get very emotional whenever I saw Aishwarya shoot for the film. In one scene, Aishwarya was on the phone, and she was being informed about Sarabjit. She was speaking exactly like how I had spoken back then. I broke down watching her.’
Omung says that Aishwarya never met Dalbir while she was preparing for the role. She met Dalbir for the first time during the first schedule of the film. ‘I didn’t spend time with her before the film because I didn’t want to get influenced in any way,’ says the actress.
So did Dalbir give any suggestions to Aishwarya while on the sets?
‘I would never give suggestions to Aishwarya directly, I would tell Omung. Actually, I didn’t spend much time on the sets. I was confident that Omung would do justice.’
The director says that a lot of thought went into make-up and set designing and every little detail. ‘As for Dalbir, Aishwarya moulded herself so beautifully into the role. A lot of detailing went into the colour of the skin to show her ageing. How would you age from 35 to 40 to 45? We did not use prosthetics but everything – the freckles, pigmentation, ageing when stressed – was done with the help of make-up.’
Now that the movie is out, how does Dalbir feel? ‘I wish the film was made when he was alive in the jail. It could have garnered lot of support. But it’s our bad luck… maybe it is our destiny.’
In April 2013, Sarabjit was severely assaulted by another prisoner while in jail. He succumbed to his injuries six days later, his wish to reunite with his family remaining unfulfilled.