By Pankaj Sachdeva
Shoojit Sircar is known for his slice-of-life films, but his filmography is also lined with a few political films. He began his film career in 2005 with ...Yahaan where he depicted a love story set in the politically-troubled land of Kashmir. In 2013, he made the political thriller Madras Cafe which was inspired by the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 2021, Sircar travels back a hundred years in Sardar Udham to bring to life the story of Udham Singh, a man whose political consciousness was awakened after the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919. Thousands of people were killed and wounded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer on the orders of Governor Michel O’Dwyer. It was a crime against humanity for which Great Britain has not officially apologized to date.
Sardar Udham is almost like the origin story of a revolutionary. There are different contexts and meanings of the word, but broadly, a revolutionary supports abrupt, rapid, and drastic change. At one stage in the film, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott), orders his soldiers to crush the protestors because he believes the revolution is dangerous. After the Jallianwala Bagh incident, Udham (Vicky Kaushal) becomes a revolutionary, dedicating his life to obtaining freedom for his people and taking revenge from Michel O’Dwyer. The trauma he experienced after the massacre does not let him think of anything else. He is so consumed by it that he cannot sleep at night. Udham’s cousin asks him to settle down in life, but she knows that he won’t. She says, “Sabne phande hi chunane hai.” You all want to kiss the noose. Udham, then, travels all over the world to make friends and alliances to serve the cause of revolution. He also takes help from Nazi Germany and Russia. He never touched a bullet in his life but managed to shoot the man responsible for killing his countrymen. Post shooting O’Dwyer, Udham is carried away by the police. There is a smile on his face. After twenty years, his struggle to get revenge was finally complete. “It is all over,” he said. In his last moments, Udham again asks Detective Inspector Swain (Stephen Hogan) to tell the world that he wants to be known as a revolutionary. In this aspect, Udham’s revolutionary actions are more in common with Subhas Chandra Bose’s violent revolutionary tactics than Mahatma Gandhi’s path of non-violence. The film rationalizes his actions by differentiating them from a terrorist’s. Bhagat Singh (Amol Parasher) elaborates that the actions of a revolutionary are aimed to register awareness of their cause, while the actions of a terrorist are aimed towards creating fear.
Sardar Udham depicts revolutionaries from other countries, such as those belonging to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), fighting for their independence from the Britishers. Udham makes a deal to obtain guns from the IRA rebels by acknowledging a common enemy. The Indians and the Irish are the lambs being slaughtered by the butcher Britishers, Udham tells a rebel. Their revolutions are the same, he adds. The film establishes more parallels between the two by depicting similar scenes at the raid on the IRA and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) premises. Another part is where a young Irish boy is shot dead in front of Udham, reminding him of the night of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Young kids were shot ruthlessly by the British Army; Udham carried half-dead kids on his back, trying to save as many as possible. Udham mentions to the detective that the Jallianwala Bagh incident is a minor footnote in their history books for the English people. The same goes for other rebellions. In The Crown series on Netflix, there is an episode in one of the seasons where Lord Mountbatten is killed by the IRA members. We never get to see their story and their motivations, just the impact on the British Crown. History, as they say, is written by the victors. Sardar Udham is an attempt to bring those footnotes from history to the title page.
The film’s most poignant scenes come towards the end, where it recreates the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and depicts its brutality and inhumanness. The entire forty-five-minute sequence is a harrowing watch. Considering that it happened in reality makes it even more discomfiting. The sequence is intentionally prolonged to make the viewers uncomfortable and shake their conscience. There are repeated scenes where a young Udham carries the survivors to the hospital. He screams, “Koi zinda hai?” every time he returns, trying to find signs of life among the pile of bodies. He had initially gone looking for his girlfriend Reshma (Banita Sandhu). I kept thinking that there would be a moment he would find her, just as Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) found the body of Shalu (Shweta Tripathi) in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, but the film does not show it. It is a deliberate omission because the sight and the smell of death can overpower other emotions. He is tortured in the most disgusting ways, but he says he feels no pain. Because he has seen death and there is no pain is not unbearable for him anymore.
There have been other films before Sardar Udham that have depicted the Jallianwala Bagh incident before. Most recently, Anshai Lal’s Phillauri depicted a different side of the incident where the ghost Shashi (Anushka Sharma) gets reunited with the spirit of her lover who was killed at Jallianwala Bagh. However, when I watched the film, I thought of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. In the film’s final moments, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) commits jauhar, where she, along with hundreds of women, walks into the fire. The colors and the symmetry of the scene make the death of a collective group of people look like a spectacle. It depicted beauty in death. And, there is Sardar Udham that does the exact opposite. It depicts death in its ugliest way. When the people are being shot, their eyes pop out. Their limbs are cut. They fall on their backs over each other. The kids are shot. There is no symmetry as people are running helter-skelter all over, like animals being butchered in a slaughterhouse. It was death with no dignity at all.
It was this human dignity that motivated Udham Singh throughout his life. At one stage in the film, he threatened a factory supervisor because he treated his fellow workers like slaves. Udham is not afraid of anyone above his rank. He protests for the freedom and equality of every human. He follows a communist and socialist ideology. It contrasts with the ‘white man’s burden’ that Michel O’Dwyer advocated about where he spoke about the burden on the English to civilize the unwashed Indian masses. Udham tattoos Ram Mohammad Singh Azad on his arm, which points to his belief in the equality of all religions. Humanity was his religion. When Udham reads Heer-Raanjha, his friend Bhagat Singh comments that it is a tale about the love for humanity. During the court trial, Udham chooses to swear on Heer-Raanjha instead of any other religious book.
Sardar Udham boasts of technical excellence in all its departments. The scenes in Russia are reminiscent of The Revenant, while the London sequences give a Peaky Blinders feel; the point being that the production design is superb. The sound design in some scenes, such as the sound of bullets being put in the guns by Britishers the night before the Jallianwala shooting, is chilling. The film’s background music many times reminded me of the score in October. However, it is the cinematography that raises the bar of the film. Avik Mukhopadhyay, who has shot many other Shoojit Sircar films, has done exquisite work again. There are some beautifully-captured top shots. There is a stunning pattern of light in various scenes of the film. Udham and other characters are often shot with light falling on their faces. Another peculiar thing was that Udham was often shot near lamps. Perhaps, it is a sign of his enlightenment. However, I could not figure out if there was a pattern of using warm white and cool white light at different places, as it was in Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera where the flashback was shot in warm white light while the present time was shot in cold white light.
Some time ago, I wrote about how location is a character
in the oeuvre of Shoojit Sircar. All his films are shot on location without creating any artificial sets. The characters live and breathe the milieu creating a world that feels real. His movies also have scenes shot explicitly in the outdoor settings that capture the location’s vibe. The same is visible in Sardar Udham
, too. Be it Punjab, London, or even Russia, Sardar Udham
captures not just the location but also the time with authenticity. It does not look fake. It also casts English actors and gives them dialogue in the way they would speak rather than making them speak Hindi, unlike the way other Hindi films tend to do. The English characters call Punjab ‘The Punjab,’
adding more authentic details. What also stands out in Sardar Udham
is that it does not paint all the Britishers as evil. At one stage, Udham says to the detective that he understands that he is doing the job for his government. This film also contrasts with the recent trend of hyper-nationalistic films, which thrive on painting the other side as vile to the core. There are also no depictions of jingoistic sloganeering and moralizing patriotism. Choosing to resist the pressure of the tide to make a film, such as Sardar Udham
, is an achievement of its own.
There are some caveats to the above as well. Sardar Udham
opens up with a lengthy disclaimer where the streaming platform claims no endorsement of the content in the film, but a few moments later, there is an interesting placard that says, “Based on true events
.” I went back to check Sircar’s Madras Cafe
(released in 2013) that said the film is a work of fiction and the resemblance to characters is entirely coincidental. It was clear for anyone who has watched Madras Cafe
that it was the story of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At the time of its release, there were protests against the film for ‘hurting sentiments,’ and the filmmakers clarified
, “This is not a biopic on him, this is not a story based on him. Yes, you can say that there is a similarity to that incident. There is a similarity in the facial structure (of the actor who plays the said role). Sardar Udham
was released directly on the streaming platforms. Last year, Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo
was the first mainstream film that went direct to streaming due to the pandemic. Having that as an option while avoiding the theatrical route gives a lot of filmmakers freedom to make the kind of film they want to make.
Sardar Udham adopts a non-linear style wherein the opening hour takes us through three different timelines and locations. It also shows the main assassination within the first hour or so. This works to its advantage, where it can focus on the origin of Udham’s revolutionary leanings. The film also leaves it to the audience to figure things out. For instance, Udham walks in the snow lands of the USSR, but later we learn that as Udham’s landlady was a Russian, therefore, he found a way there through her.
Some scenes don’t work well, such as where Udham gets drunk in the park. There are some pacing issues in the second half where I felt they could have shortened the Jallianwala Bagh sequence. It would still have created the same impact. I am a little unsure what to think of the character of the translator, who was aimed more at the audience than the plot, as the film is primarily based in London.
Vicky Kaushal gives a terrific performance, especially in the Jallianwala Bagh scenes. He also adopts a lean appearance as a young Udham. The role was initially written for Irrfan Khan, but Vicky Kaushal has done a superb job. All the other English actors are great as well. Like her character from Sircar’s previous film October, Banita Sandhu plays the role of Reshma, young Udham Singh’s girlfriend, where she does not have a voice. Her muteness can also be seen as symbolic of people’s lost voice under the British government.
Sardar Udham and October
At one point in Sircar’s October, a friend comments to Dan (Varun Dhawan) that he is getting too affected by the condition of Shiuli (Banita Sandhu). Dan replies to his friend that how she can be so unaffected by what happened to their friend. Dan has no relationship with Shiuli. He was neither her relative nor her boyfriend. Yet, he is so much into Shiuli’s care that he starts losing things in his own life. He loses his relationships. He loses his parents. He loses his job. The last words that Shiuli spoke before she fell were, “Where is Dan?” These words profoundly impact Dan, and he is immensely affected by them. These words gave him a purpose, and he started caring for Shiuli. He remained irritated earlier, but later, he became empathetic and mellow. Dan undergoes a transformation, and grew up by the end of the film. A similar transformation is seen in Uddham Singh. He had no interest in attending political rallies earlier. But he is so affected by the events of Jallianwala Bagh that he cannot sleep at night. His teacher once told him that youth is a gift and it is up to him to use it. After that one night where he saw death, Udham spent all his life hoping to give it meaning. Udham was an orphan, but he found his family of humanity among the dead on that night. “Ek wahi bass apni thi, phir sab apne ho gaye.” He takes a bath in the waters of the Golden Temple. Revolutionaries do not just bring about a change in political beliefs; they also change the human soul.
1) Books In Movies:
- Bhagat Singh reads Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
- Udham Singh reads Heer-Ranjha by Waris Shah.
- There is a copy of The State and Revolution by Lenin.
- The book in which Udham Singh hid the gun when he went to shoot Micheal O’Dwyer is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
- The book India As I Knew It by Micheal O’Dwyer.
2) “Patta patta buta buta, haal hamara jaane hai, gul hi na jaane, baaġh to saare jaane hai,” was writtenbyMir Muhammad Taqi. It also shown in the song in B.R. Ishara’s Ek Nazar (1972).
3) Udham Singh played a movie extra in two films including Elephant Boy (1937) and The Four Feathers (1939).
4) Udham Singh’s defence lawyer was also V.K. Krishna Menon, who later became defence minister of independent India.