There is a conversation between Udham Singh, played by Vicky Kaushal and Detective Inspector John Swain played by Stephen Hogan, in the movie Sardar Udham, where the Inspector asks Udham, “Do you hate the British?” and Udham replies with a clement smile, “No. I have many British friends too. I don’t hate them…I don’t hate you. You’re doing your job.” The conversation is in stark contrast to how the “so-called mainstream” Hindi movies have hitherto portrayed the anti-colonial struggle with caricature-ish British characters as vile beings who can only exhibit brutality and with Indian freedom fighters manifested as an amalgamation of jingoistic pride tantamount to the iconisation of the nation. In doing so, these movies have, in fact, distanced the audience from the very men they claim to represent. Sardar Udham Singh, in this regard, comes across as an enlivening biopic that contextualises the intentions of the revolutionaries beyond the contemporary misappropriation of them under the trope of parochial nationalism.
The Cultivation Theory shows that people’s perception of reality is often dependent on what the media regularly portrays. Most action-based Indian movies have hitherto used the archaic formula of instilling a toxic hyper-masculine hegemony over the history of the freedom struggle. However, violent masculinity is oppressive, perpetuates social contestations and is against the ethos and ethics of democracy.
The delineation from the toxic traits of hypermasculinity in this movie is not presented as enfeebling. After Udham has shot at Dwyer, with ease, and is being arrested, he is not enraged or bitter; he is contented and effervescent. During the court proceedings, he takes the oath on the romantic saga of Heer Ranjha, and throughout the movie, his love for relishing ladoos stays persistent, so much so that his British defence lawyer too, gets them for him in prison. The interactions between Detective Inspector Swain and Udham, as well as between Udham and Hutchison, Udham’s lawyer, unexpectedly turn into amicable conversations between individuals who commence comprehending the actions of each other. In this process of humanising Udham Singh the revolutionary; Sardar Udham the movie; does not cater to the male gaze of shallow jingoism; neither is Udham shown as a man who does not get traumatised.
The sluggish movie recreating an imperative period in colonial history; commences and concludes in prisons where young individuals inundated with anti-imperialism fervour are languishing due to an oppressive colonial system. One does get reminded of what Angela Davis has written in her seminal work Are Prisons Obsolete, where she explicates how the prison has been used as a tool of the oppressors to control those who deviate from the disciplined codes inflicted by authoritarian regimes.
Amidst the law being contentious, the judiciary becoming a repressive tool and the media a manipulated mouthpiece, the male freedom fighters in the biopic have empathy and emotional vulnerability; they ask for help, crack jokes, have fun, meet and miss their lovers, and care for their friends. They do not seek momentary revenge neither do they envisage an India emancipated from the Britishers as the end of all tribulations, for they believe independence to be a canvass on which a new, just India needs to be created; or else the freedom would be worse than the slavery, as the character of Bhagat Singh expatiates that a true revolutionary “cannot be prejudiced, nor communal, nor casteist.”
In her inaugural lecture on Feminist Discourse, organised by the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Gail Omvedt had articulated on the memoirs of her late mother-in-law Indumati Patankar who was a freedom fighter and feminist activist, “Her memoirs inform me about surprisingly advanced understanding and practices of feminist consciousness during the period of the freedom movement. It is shown by concepts of staying and sleeping in one room by young men and women without any apprehension, intercaste and inter-religious marriages, young women leaving their homes alone to join the freedom movement.”
The movie Sardar Udham shows young revolutionaries interacting underground, where the women revolutionaries are retaliating against the colonial empire by following their own ideology, carrying pamphlets, upholding proficiency in weapons and using them when needed, and at one point, Bhagat Singh confirms with a woman comrade if she thinks that a particular gun is a good one. Udham himself was in a relationship with a woman who was killed at the Jallianwala Bagh protest and later in close correspondence with a woman who was an activist. In both cases, Udham was not portrayed as a saviour to either, nor were the women pitted against one another — these are all the bare minimum, yet have been wilfully overlooked in Indian cinema. However, the female freedom fighters in the movie, even after being martyred by the British, are not referred to by their identities; embedding a rift in the heart that shall history written by men only eulogise the identities of their own selves.
Udham Singh belonged to a struggling working-class family of the Kamboj community categorised under the OBC list in Punjab and post the demise of his parents at an early age; was brought into an orphanage with his brother; who too passed away later. The movie, though, does not focus on this aspect of his nascent years. Unlike the freedom fighters from affluent oppressor caste families; who had resources to lead a sheltered life even during the struggle; Udham had to toil in umpteen working-class jobs to sustain himself. The end credits of the movie, dominated by upper castes themselves, blanket all Indians as uniformly oppressed under colonial rule. However, as Mahatma Jotirao Phule has written in his revolutionary works such as Cultivator’s Whipcord and as Yashica Dutt has elaborated in Coming Out As A Dalit, the so-called upper caste Indians too, were involved with Britishers in exploiting the marginalised. Clarifying this crucial information is paramount, since denying violence is the worst form of violence; as those making a movie on the Jallianwala massacre would know. Furthermore, certain actors from the privileged strata have been brownfaced to be portrayed as marginalised and occasionally, the dialogues are a didactic pedagogical tool. The Hinglish seems an anachronistic fit but overall it does communicate the trauma and triumphs of the characters.
With his transcontinental allies and engagement with socialist and communist organisations, Udham Singh’s act was a culmination in his fight for all. He didn’t use to fire guns initially as mentioned by the character of Bhagat Singh but taught himself the skill to shoot O’Dwyer. Additionally, he did not shoot O’Dwyer privately, even when he had the opportunity to, for he wanted to register his protest symbolically. He shot him, Lord Zetland, Lord Lamington and Sir Louis Dane all of whom embodied British imperialism; at a public event.
With flashbacks and detours, the movie by Shoojit Sircar shows an all-encompassing fighter in Udham Singh engaging in multitudinous ideological and emancipatory activities including his extensive involvement with working-class politics across the globe. In an incident at the factory in which he was working in Britain, Udham gets agitated when a British supervisor passes derogatory remarks on Udham’s working-class friend. Udham then instructs all the workers, including the British ones, to stop working and addresses them by elaborating the many ways in which capitalist exploitation has been oppressing them; vociferously asserting that workers too are humans and everything in the world belongs to them as well.
However, the salient question remains whether the contemporary Indian society would have accepted let alone celebrated the radical socialism and communism of these revolutionaries; had they been alive today?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.