He went by several aliases, including Ude Singh, Sher Singh and Frank Brazil, but the freedom fighter’s given name was Udham Singh. He is remembered for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919, at London’s Caxton Hall in 1940.
Shoojit Sircar (Piku, Gulabo Sitabo) has long nurtured a dream to make a film on Singh, who was an adventurer, a revolutionary, a movie extra and a mystery. Starring Vicky Kaushal in the titular role, Sardar Udham (Amazon Prime, October 16), is the culmination of a study of freedom fighters that began during in the late 1980s, when Sircar was a student at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College in Delhi. Among Udham Singh’s influences was Bhagat Singh.
Sircar told Scroll.in about what it took to recreate the 1900s and why he waited more than 15 years to make the biopic.
Why wait this long to make a film on Udham Singh?
A long time ago, I wanted to make a movie on the freedom movement and Shaheed Bhagat Singh. But many films came out on Bhagat Singh at the same time, and I also realised I was not prepared to take on something on the scale of a period film.
I came to Mumbai with the purpose of making this film but then I let it burn and I kept on gathering more information because it was not easy to get information on Sardar Udham Singh. There has been a lot of debate on where he was at the time of the 1919 incident, what he was doing in Amritsar, what he was doing in London, what he was doing in the intervening years. Once I had as much information as I could get, we started stitching it together into a script. By then I had the experience of a few films. This film needed craft, in terms of mounting the film in a cinematic way.
Is there much information about Udham Singh?
Not really. The only thing that is absolutely documented is that he went to Caxton Hall and shot at Michael O’Dwyer and some other gentlemen. He was caught and jailed. There was a trial and he wrote a few letters from jail.
The rest is not solid and there is no other proof. So the biggest challenge in the story was piecing it all together. We also used survivor testimonies from the Hunter Committee Report, the Indian National Congress-instituted inquiry, news articles and essays by historians.
Where did you shoot?
We could not shoot in the actual Jallianwala Bagh, but we recreated the right world. My primary reference was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, apart from the Bagh itself, which I have visited many times.
The Indian portions were shot in Punjab – Amritsar and its surroundings and Hoshiarpur. The London parts were recreated in Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) and we took a few shots in London and Ireland. Everything was recreated from scratch.
I have no experience in creating an era, and whatever films I have seen I didn’t find too inspiring. So I went to American and European films, documentaries from Pathe, BBC and Films Division and online archive pictures. These helped me to create the era. My attempt was to create a world into which I hope the viewer will be enfolded.
What was the thought behind the period recreation and production design?
The most important suggestions came from my cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, including colour palettes. Those ideas were shared with our executive producer Kumar Thakur, art director Mansi Mehta and international art director Dmitriy Malich.
Ronnie Lahiri, who has produced this film, is also a history buff and was actively involved in the creative process. I have never been to England, so I have no idea what London looks like. I only know what I have seen in pictures, videos and films.
I have been to Amritsar several times. So what I know of the period I have learnt from film, documentaries and archival footage. We have taken snaps from archives and recreated them. Having said that, I was clear that I didn’t want to overload the scene with period design because I didn’t want the film to get lost.
Udham Singh was quite the adventurer. Does the film explore his patriotism while also giving a measure of his life?
He was definitely an adventurer, and he was focussed. The film zooms into Udham’s mind. We have tried to understand what he was keeping to himself, that mysterious thing he was carrying; what was his belief system, his ideology; how did he travel, because there was a lookout notice on him and he could not take the sea route.
Yet he did. He was a member of the Ghadar Party in America. He was a small-time actor, a mechanic. But he was not known at all till the news of the assassination broke out in 1940. There are many missing links. I have presented as much as I know, but I also don’t know everything.
Udham Singh: Motor mechanic, movie actor – and freedom fighter
Jallianwala Bagh massacre: How Colonel Dyer exploited the planned gathering as a ‘gift of fortune’
‘An Incident from 1919’: Saadat Hasan Manto’s haunting short story on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre