What makes a revolutionary? What’s the difference between a revolutionary and a terrorist? What’s different between a revenge killing and a symbolic killing?
Shoojit Sircar’s latest film – Sardar Udham – tackles these questions. Through a nonlinear screenplay, it seeks to flesh out and humanize its eponymous protagonist. Through it all, it also seeks the answer to the question – Why did Sardar Udham Singh assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of Punjab in 1919, and why so late, in 1940?
If you’ve watched the film’s trailer and/or read about Sardar Udham Singh, you probably know the basic story. There isn’t much by way of suspense or a big reveal in the film. There isn’t even a buildup to the assassination. The film does away with the killing by the time the clock marks 28 minutes – 20% of the way in.
But this isn’t to slag off the film. Once Singh assassinates O’Dwyer, it was clear that it wasn’t trying to build to that and that the core of the story was going to be different.
If there’s a standout sequence in the film, it arrives late, after the story seems to have exhausted all the other avenues. From tbe beginning, we’re constantly made aware of what happened on April 13th, 1919, in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. There are one or two snippets from the aftermath of the event, but that’s that. But it’s at the end, with about half an hour to go to the credits, that the director turns his focus to the tragedy in full detail. It goes on for close to 25 minutes, and unless you have a heart of stone, it will arrest your gaze and move you. The shooting and killing of peaceful, unarmed civilians is tragic, but the real horror unfurls as we watch Udham Singh (with other people in the distant background) trying to find survivors and ferry them to wherever they can get help. It’s excruciating and incredibly difficult viewing. But ultimately, this set-piece is the emotional heart and soul of the film. I’d always thought that a film recreation could never do justice to Jallianwala Bagh. I don’t know whether this one does, but it’s pretty bloody impactful.
The Jallianwala Bagh sequence is harrowing as is, but if this film had released in 2019, I guess it’d not have been as shocking as it is now, in the aftermath of the devastating Covid second wave. There are visual parallels between what we see in the film and what we saw in the second wave. But more than that, there are thematic parallels between the two – the gruesome nature of the tragedy, the seeming futility of the rescue efforts, the overwhelming exhaustion that our compatriots experienced. It was impossible not to be shaken by the tragedy of the Covid second wave. It had to have been impossible for someone, anyone, not to have been traumatised by the macabre of the Jallianwala Bagh butchering.
The film starts off by alternating between two timelines – 1933 and 1927. Throughout, it is mostly set in either the winter of India or the cold, gray milieu of England. The cinematography complements this brooding, downbeat set up. Avik Mukhopadhyay’s camera never attempts to be flashy. There’s a clear decision to have realism in the visuals. This largely works in favour of the film.
There’s a romantic subplot that’s thankfully kept both brief and minor. Initial skepticism over the utility of this subplot soon gives way to an understanding of what it will achieve. And suffice it to say that it does deliver.
The focal point of the film is Vicky Kaushal’s protagonist – Sardar Udham Singh. Kaushal carries off the part with élan, conveying the character’s various moods and pains beautifully. True, the role requires him to be stone-faced for a large part, but he does exhibit every range of emotion whenever he’s required to. It’d be a monumental shame if he’s not nominated for multiple awards at the end of the year.
Credit is also due to Mr. Sircar and his screenplay team for holding off on the jingoism and the unabashed bigotry that seem to be endemic in patriotic/war/historical films in Bollywood these days. It might sound like a simple thing, because really, the story has enough juice as is. But given the temptations, it’s a minor miracle that the makers didn’t jump for the low-hanging fruit.
This is not to say that the film’s sense of nationalistic pride is muddled or missing. Far from it. In the vein of Shashi Tharoor’s recent rebuttals to the British, the film makes a clear distinction between the views of colonized Indians and that of the British about the Empire. In fact, the film doesn’t spare any efforts to show what kind of soulless, unrepentant villains both General Dyer, and more importantly, governor O’Dwyer were.
My quibbles with the film were minor. Vicky Kaushal’s perennially-trimmed beard, Churchill showing the King his back, and the like. I am not clear how historically accurate the film is with all its details, so I won’t argue those aspects. This is an excellently made feature, and the above nitpickings just stood out.
Verdict: Sardar Udham is a solid, stark film about a largely-forgotten braveheart revolutionary.
P. S. –
1. If you want to know more about Udham Singh, check out Anita Anand’s book “The Patient Assassin.” I’d first thought that the film is based on the book, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
2. One of my longstanding pet peeves is the western pronounciation of Punjab. What would make them realise that it’s “Pan-jaab”, not “Poon-jaab”?
3. When Udham Singh stumbles into Jallianwala Bagh, in the aftermath, we’re treated to a sound of swarming flies in the background. It’s April, and a whole day has almost passed, so flies on dead bodies seem natural. Excellent sound editing and terrific attention to detail.
4. There’s a waterboarding scene midway through the film. If you, like me, feel that might be inaccurate because the torture technique is apparently modern, you’d be wrong. Again, like me. Turns out, waterboarding has been in operation for centuries, albeit under different names.
Have you watched the movie? What are you thoughts on it? How did you feel about this post? Please let me know in the comments section.
Stills courtesy Amazon Prime Video India.
Thanks for reading.