The Indian struggle for freedom has, not without reason, been a favourite topic for Indian filmmakers for decades now. The drama and romanticism attached to the valour and courage displayed by the freedom fighters, multiplies itself when viewed through the lens of an artiste. However, our historiography has traditionally been quite narrowly ‘national’ in its outlook. Our books often tend to downplay the variegated external and international influences that aided India in its quest for independence. As a result, the films, too, have largely been focused on domestic narratives only. Shoojit Sircar’s latest offering titled Sardar Udham, starring Vicky Kaushal in the eponymous role, attempts to talk about the diasporic and global tentacles of our freedom movement.
Many of us might have fleetingly read about the revolutionary trend of the freedom movement – one emblematised by Bhagat Singh and antithetical to the Gandhian movement. The subject of the film, Sardar Udham Singh belonged to that trend. However, Udham Singh remains an almost mysterious individual owing to the considerable lack of literature on him. It is fairly well-known that many of our revolutionary ideologues organised themselves and galvanised support from outside India, like the Ghadar Party in San Francisco, the India House in Berlin etc. Sircar’s film makes a mention of some of these outfits and portrays Udham Singh as a man whose revolutionary approach was informed by political ideologies like socialism. The film is largely set outside India – mostly in London of the 1930s when Udham Singh was involved with the Indian revolutionaries based in the heart of the British Empire. It is a period piece chronicling the events which lead up to the assassination of Michael O’Dwyer – the lieutenant governor of Punjab who had overseen the massacre at Amritsar – at the hands of Udham Singh, a figure hitherto unknown in the larger scheme of affairs. For its aesthetic interpretation of a looming conspiracy, the film reminded me of Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Udham Singh was never at the centre-stage, or even popularly involved with any movement in India. In fact, he had spent much of his time globetrotting, under various aliases like Sher Singh, Ude Singh and Frank Brazil.
Apart from depicting the involvement of a British communist ideologue in Udham Singh’s life, the film glances upon the protests by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against the British and how Indian revolutionaries tried to establish close contacts with them. This makes for very interesting history as it integrates the Indian movement with a globally popular one. As Udham tries to obtain weapons from an IRA recruit, he tells him in broken English, “You lamb, me lamb, butcher same.” The film also shows Winston Churchill and King George VI discussing Singh’s trial in a private session, which culminates in the king asking whether the crown will ‘quit India.’ These references make a case for the ripples created by the movement outside Indian soil.
Sardar Udham is a slow-burner. Clocking in at more than two-and-a-half hours, the sprawling narrative crawls. The usual drama, emotion or nationalist fervour attached with a film about the freedom struggle is largely absent. In its matter-of-fact approach, the film dwells upon the critical exchanges that Udham Singh has with various people, including Michael O’Dwyer himself. However, when the rawness of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre sequence takes over the screen, it overwhelms the audience. As a young Udham Singh wades through the bodies, we are once again reminded of the bloodiest and the most horrific incident in the modern history of our country, one which is perhaps a footnote in the history books of Britain. The garden was ruthlessly converted into a killing field in a matter of minutes.
Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham does justice to the portrayal. He has worn and managed the idiosyncrasies for the role very well. Since it is a character-driven narrative and in the absence of significant ancillary characters, he does most of the heavy-lifting. Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, long-time collaborator of Sircar, employs a critical balance of cool and warm colours which suit the transition between feverish and melancholic moods. Shoojit Sircar, this time devoid of his usual screenwriting associate Juhi Chaturvedi, once again shows why he is not the average Joe when it comes to churning out cinema. With Sardar Udham, Sircar has again proved himself to be an important filmmaker of our times. The film is a unique addition to the long list of films inspired by the freedom struggle, not only because it has a relatively lesser-known figure at its centre, but also because it presents a picture of how Indian revolutionary movement transcended national boundaries. However, the film, under the garb of telling the story of one man, actually reflects on a strand of our freedom struggle which remains quite under-discussed in popular discourse. Hopefully, the film would spark further discussions on the same.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.