Thirty minutes into Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar's latest directorial venture, the shooting at the centre of the plot is done with. Unlike most other filmmakers who would've saved this dramatic moment for the end, Sircar makes the courageous decision to steer away from the event itself and focus more on how it happened and why.
The story of Sardar Udham Singh, a revolutionary most popularly known for the assassination for Michael O'Dwyer, the film is an antidote the populist and aggresively nationalistic storytelling that draws you in slowly, quashing every stereotype associated with the genre. Writers Ritesh Shah and Shubendhu Bhattacharya have enough faith in the audience to understand the jump-cuts between time periods. Despite an aggresively non-linear screenplay, the mesmerising world created by the makers forms a transportive experience that's absolutely irresistable. This deliberate narrative choice only enhances the impact of the film's devastating final hour.
Every little period detail is fleshed out intricately, and the technical finnese elevates the storytelling without ever overwhelming it. Cinematographer and Sircar's frequent collaborator Avik Mukhopadhyay delineates the film with eye-watering, densely filled frames that leak of muted blues and greys. Production designers Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dmitriy Malich pack in so much with every scene that I often found myself rewinding back, only to notice something I hadn't noticed before.
Udham's slowburning anger is beautifully fleshed out by Sircar and actor Vicky Kaushal. There's no chest-thumping here, instead a measured, almost languid pace reflects the psychological trauma that drives the character's motivations. In a scene where Udham is asked if he hates the British, he firmly replies with a "No." The film's determination to not conform to simplistic, tacky politics is the kind that reinstates your faith in both cinema and humanity. The reality itself is so horrific that it doesn't require any exaggerated liberties to make an impact.
The writers are more interested in delving into the character's psyche. Udham's physical wounds recover, the mental ones don't. He's haunted by the ghosts of his past. As he says, "Uss din, maine maut dekhi." Even though on the surface the film is designed as a tale of revenge, the moment of vengeance isn't paid as much heed as the ones that caused this hunger. The first half provides exposition in reverse for the film's last hour, much of which is spent depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that propels Udham to do what he does.
Shoojit is unafraid to show the horror without any frills. Flies swarm over bloodied flesh, there is no anaesthesia available in makeshift hospitals, the wails of people in pain aren't subdued. He designs some of Hindi cinema's most gut-wrenching, gooseflesh-inducing scenes without ever exploiting tragedy. The skilful storytelling is so effortless that it's almost inconspicuous.
Yet, it's Vicky Kaushal's career-defining turn that holds the film together even during a minor lull in the second act. This is an actor at the peak of his craft, and Kaushal paints a stunning portrait of a man we know so little about. At least for the first hour, Udham remains an enigma. The makers trust the actor enough to convey so much with so little, and Kaushal's deafening silences speak as much as his words. He is equally convincing as the brooding spy motivated by his past horrors as he is as the teenage boy who's world comes undone. Despite little screen-time, Banita Sandhu and Amol Parashar too are wonderful as Reshma, Udham's love interest and the iconic Bhagat Singh, his ally and inspiration-of-sorts. This is also that rare instance where British characters aren't reduced to Hindi-spouting, historical parodies. Stephen Hogan, Shaun Scott and Kirsty Averton especially deliver more than competent performances in what would've otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb.
Be warned, Sardar Udham doesn't have the swiftness you might expect from a film like this. There are portions that tread dangerously on becoming static. At 162 minutes, it's also a a tad bit overlong. However, it's easy to look past these errors if you submit to Sircar's ambitious vision. This is a meditative film aided by superb writing and terrific performances that provides some closure and asks even more questions. It even leaves you with some lessons on freedom and revolution that are relevant now more than ever.