Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham is a biopic of a man of history and mystery, a pre-Independence revolutionary who is remembered for a single act but whose life had many moving parts.
On March 13, 1940, Udham Singh avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar by assassinating Punjab’s former Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer in London. While Reginald Dyer was the one who gave the orders to mow down unarmed protestors in the walled garden on April 13, 1919, O’Dwyer “gave his tacit encouragement, and explicit approval, for the violent suppression of the unrest in Punjab”, writes historian Kim A Wagner in Jallianwala Bagh.
Wagner quotes O’Dwyer’s views on the tragedy, which claimed hundreds of lives: “The Amritsar business cleared the air, and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere, and one regrets that there should be, it was best at Amritsar.”
Udham Singh waited for over two decades for revenge. The movie about Udham’s slow-burning exploit plays out mostly as a one-hander. Sircar’s Udham, played by Vicky Kaushal, emerges as a magnificently obsessed individual, driven by the desire for freedom from colonisation and closure on Jallianwala Bagh.
Sardar Udham follows a handful of biopics about a historical figure whose colourful life readily lends itself to fictionalisation. Writer Anu Kumar points out in a profile of Udham Singh for Scroll.in that he evades easy categorisation. Before he wrote himself into history books, Udham Singh was a mechanic, salesman, carpenter, welder, and, most fascinatingly, a bit-part actor in the Orientalist productions of British movie mogul Alexander Korda.
The creators of Sardar Udham, which is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video, bravely but also puzzlingly resist the temptation to include what might have been a shoo-in – Udham Singh as a movie extra, putting on make-up and hanging around in the background, adding yet another mask to the many he wore across his 40-year existence.
Sardar Udham focuses on another kind of lurking. Udham, who used different names – Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Frank Brazil, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad – is often seen hiding behind pillars, ducking into alleys and looking over his shoulder.
The long and hard road to revenge criss-crosses continents and has a few fellow travellers – among them British communist Eileen Palmer (Kirsty Averton). But most of the time, Udham works alone, with only memories of his youthful dreams and nightmares for company.
The non-linear screenplay by Shubendu Bhattacharya (who also has a story credit) and Ritesh Shah is based on facts but takes creative licence with them. Udham’s formative years include an influential friendship with Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar). Radicalised by Jallianwala Bagh, Udham lies in wait, sometimes impatiently, to register his protest.
As the British police, led by the detective Swain (Stephen Hogan), try to make sense of O’Dwyer’s assassin, we get glimpses of Udham’s iron resolve. The narrative doesn’t ignore Udham’s Marxist beliefs and internationalist understanding of imperialism. Udham makes common cause with Irish nationalists, pointing out that both the Indians and the Irish are lambs being readied for the same slaughter. (The movie is equal parts Hindi and English).
Yet, by mirroring Udham’s monomania, the biopic individualises his quest and ignores the diversity of forces that might have transformed him from peripatetic searcher to focused freedom fighter. Shoojit Sircar shadows Udham for a bottom-warming 163 minutes, but chooses to view him solely as a reactive agent to that day in Jallianwala Bagh.
The massacre and its aftermath are depicted in gruesome, harrowing and excruciating detail. As Udham winds his way through rows of corpses in search of survivors, Vicky Kaushal reaches his dramatic peak.
Solid as a bearded young man in love in Punjab and a clean-shaven revolutionary in London, Kaushal is especially impressive in the Jallianwala Bagh sequence. Overwhelmed by the scale of mindless death, Udham can do little more than wheel victims to safety. Sircar milks the moment for all it is worth, trading concision for effect.
This history lesson nevertheless goes down well, unlike the other uninvolving and dodgy portions about Britain’s involvement in World War II. There’s also a scene too many of Udham being tortured in prison. The British actors, which include Shaun Scott as Michael O’Dwyer, fare better than in other productions about the freedom struggle. But the movie’s heart lies back home, in the mist-covered fields of Punjab and the blood-soaked ground of Jallianwala Bagh.
There is no stinting of effort to recreate the period. The production design, by Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dmitrii Malich, transports us back in time, while Avik Mukhopadhyay’s tense handheld cinematography and mood lighting capture Udham’s escalating anxiety over his mission.
Although Sardar Udham isn’t always successful in providing a rounded and complex portrait, Sircar’s sober and thoughtful exploration of the injustice that underpinned the British empire survives his tendency towards excess and bloat. In Bhagat Singh’s passion and Udham’s sacrifice, there are echoes of the sonic youth of the Indian present, who are facing the brunt of O’Dwyer’s declaration that “punishment that creates a fear of punishment is of great practical value”. In the field of bodies in Amritsar and the dank prison in London where Udham counts down to his final days, liberation from tyranny has never seemed sweeter, or more necessary.
How Shoojit Sircar travelled back in time for his Udham Singh biopic
Udham Singh: Motor mechanic, movie actor – and freedom fighter
Jallianwala Bagh massacre: How Colonel Dyer exploited the planned gathering as a ‘gift of fortune’