Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar has spent years carefully researching the events of April 13, 1919 – the day the British opened fire of a group of peaceful protestors at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh. Sircar's intention was to make a film on this brutal massacre and revolutionary Bhagat Singh. Over time the idea took a new form and ended up becoming a film on a lesser-known revolutionary, Udham Singh – who assassinated Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the incident.
But the intent of the film remained unchanged – to inform and educate people on the horrors of that day. So far the Jallianwala Bagh massacre has got a passing mention or a few scenes in movies. In Sircar's Sardar Udham it forms the entire third act. In fact, it's almost its own film within the larger film. It begins from the day before to the shooting and takes us right till the morning after.
From the deafening sounds of bullets and helpless protestors jumping into a well, to gory images of spilled guts and severed limbs, Sircar intentionally makes this a hard watch. There's barely any dialogue or music to distract you from the brutality of that night.
It took Sircar and his team 22 days and literal blood, sweat and tears to recreate this event. We asked Sircar, actor Vicky Kaushal, producer Ronnie Lahiri, chief assistant directors Tushar Singhal and Bhargav Oza, production designer Mansi Dhruv Mehta, sound designer Dipankar Jojo Chaki and make-up designer Pia Cornelius to walk us through the process.
Shoojit Sircar: "There are a lot of myths around this but no particular evidence of where he was that day. It wasn't easy for me to decide when to bring him in. I was worried how the people of Punjab would react. Some people say he was outside the Bagh, trying to help people. Some say he was not there at all. Some also say he was distributing pamphlets outside. I believe he would not have gone because at 18 or 19 he may not have been politically motivated.
While going through survivor stories, I saw statements by two women who said a few boys came in the middle of the night with lanterns to help. One of the women said a young boy helped pick up her husband and this gave me a lead. I took a call that Udham must have been one of the boys who came later to help."
Ronnie Lahiri: "There was a whole debate about going for a linear structure. In that case, the point at which General O'Dwyer is shot in the film would probably be where Jallianwala would have happened. But then that would have become the kind of jingoistic film we wanted to avoid. The takeaway would then be that here was a man who took revenge, which we didn't want to glorify. What he did was way deeper. He wasn't just an assassin or a killing machine."
Tushar Singhal: "There was barely anything in the script, maybe just a few lines. We broke down the sequence into some 30-40 shots and then those were storyboarded to help our DoP (Avik Mukhopadhyay) and makeup and prosthetic team. The storyboard was detailed. It has every fall, where the bullets will hit, who will get what bullet, and which of them will survive later in the hospital."
Vicky Kaushal: "The last 40 minutes of the film was actually just bullet points on paper that had the sequence of events from him reaching the ground, to going to neighbour's house for help, to taking bodies on a cart… to the next morning.
Since there were no dialogues, I had asked Shoojit da if he could just write down some points of what all my character sees that night so that I could gradually reach that emotional state by the morning where his soul is absolutely crushed and he feels annihilated from the inside, without making it look jerky."
Mansi Dhruv Mehta: "We were lucky to get this one big open ground in a school in Amritsar with a big gate. There aren't many visual references of 1919. We just had one reference of a painting (see photo below) depicting what would've happened that day. We read that Dwyer wanted to march in with the troops but also with an armoured car with guns, but the lane was so narrow that he couldn't take it in. So we recreated that lane and the passage with the exact width and the same architecture.
Jallianwala Bagh also had no other entry and exit points, so they were mostly locked in. The ground was surrounded by houses and buildings with windows overlooking it. We incorporated those kinds of details in our architecture."
Ronnie Lahiri: "We didn't want regular film extras for this. We were shooting in Amritsar but we didn't cast city people because they looked too groomed. We got people from villages that were two or three hours away and examined each face that would be a part of the crowd. Many of these people were farmers who worked in the sun and looked like they belonged to that period. If we hadn't chosen the right faces, the whole believability factor would have gone.
We also got the local 'gatka players' (a form of local martial arts). We needed them so that when the bullets were being fired they could jump, fall backwards and fly easily."
Mansi Dhruv Mehta: "We also made 200 dummy dead bodies which you see in the background. They couldn't be stiff. A lot of trial and error went into figuring out what kind of materials we should use for the dead bodies. We made them wear real clothes and gave them pagdis and wigs."
Ronnie Lahiri: "We must have gone through hundreds and thousands of litres of blood everyday. And that too different kinds of blood. One was for the tight close ups. That was expensive and as good as authentic blood which we imported from the UK. Then we had another variety that we got locally. Then a third kind that was used to just throw around on the field."
Shoojit Sircar: "Our DoP Abhik da had given me one camera to operate. I would sit behind it with two buckets of blood on my left and right side. If I saw something missing in the shot I would go with a mug of blood and spill it. I've kept one of my jeans, which is completely red now, as a souvenir. It was very hard for me to film violence. I'm not that person and none of my other films have violence.
After seeing so much blood and limbs lying around all day, I would get convulsions. I would not feel like eating and couldn't get sleep at night."
Vicky Kaushal: "We didn't have a monitor village, which is a general site where people can sit on chairs and rest it out between shots. For this we would shoot from about 7 in the evening to 11 in the night continuously and break for dinner only after packing up. I wouldn't know where the cameras are placed. All I knew was that there were three cameras set up.
I just had to go and pick up bodies. So if I was tripping on some tiffin boxes, if I was stepping in a pool of blood, or falling over bodies lying around, it was all happening for real. All the bodies I picked up were real. The exhaustion in my body language came in because that's how we shot it.
After going back to the hotel, I would shower, have dinner, and try to crash, but I just couldn't. I would keep thinking of what might have actually happened that day, a 100 years back. My body would be physically dead, but my mind would constantly keep running because I just didn't have control on it."
Tushar Singhal and Bhargav Oza: "For 22 days we were spraying people with blood, putting people in a scenario where they are dead or about to die… sometimes doing it ourselves before briefing them. It was emotionally exhausting."
Pia Cornelius: "I was responsible in designing and executing the make up look for the young version of Udham Singh which is depicted at the end of the movie with the massacre and the sections leading up to that. To ensure a flow in the various stages of blood, sweat and filth, I not only used my own photos and notes (I always keep my own continuity), but was grateful for the added information and footage made available on short notice by the assistant directors. The filming and the changes were happening backwards and forwards in the storyline at a rapid speed so as to not lose momentum and the "realness" of the moment. Good continuity especially in scenes like these are essential for an uninterrupted viewing experience. I feel we achieved that. The fake facial hair – especially made sparse so that one could get the feel of a young man – along with Vicky Kaushal's convincing acting helped us portray a younger version of Udham Singh. As always, the making of a film is a team effort, and this one had one of the most amazing cast and crew. I am honoured to have been a part of it."
Dipankar Jojo Chaki: "This segment was very interesting because each sound is different. Someone is hit in the bone, somebody's arm or leg is dismembered, someone gets hit on the back of the head… Each of these bullet sounds were crafted so that we could get those specific sounds.
We used a lot of foley sounds of people running, bodies falling, being dragged… There is a sequence of people jumping into the well. If you listen carefully you will hear their voices inside the well. It happens so fast but some of them fall on top of another person and some of them fall half on a person and half into the water, so the sound is like that.. Somebody watching it very intently will be able to notice it."
Shoojit Sircar: "This was like a film within a film and it was intended that way. But our struggle was with the time – how long it should be, how much to keep… But I was quite adamant that I wanted to show everything. I don't think I left any shots from that shoot. Kadhai ekdum saaf kar diya. I became quite rigid and told everyone that this is how I want it. I said you can cut from any part of the film but not this."
Tushar Singhal: "I remember there was a lot of debate over the length and if it's becoming too slow and Shoojit sir just said that if people in the bagh that day could go through so much suffering, we can surely watch it for 40 minutes. He was extremely sure about showing everything in detail."
Vicky Kaushal: "When I saw the film for the first time, I was prepared that it's going to be extensive because Shoojit da had said that he was planning to keep most of it so that you could feel the night was never ending.
Usually when you watch your film for the first time, you're just watching your performance because you already know the beats of the scene. But here, I did not know what the angles were… I hadn't looked at the monitor. So when this portion came and I saw how all of it was stitched together, I was hypnotized. I didn't even know what to tell Shoojit da. The impact was so strong that I just went silent."
Ronnie Lahiri: "We were totally uncompromising in our vision. When I saw the footage I told Shoojit da that we don't need music. Usually people make songs anyway to use for promotions. I said no we don't need it for this film. We have only one shot at this, let's make it totally the way we want to make it."
(With inputs from Sankhayan Ghosh)