In Anita Anand's book The Patient Assassin, Sardar Udham Singh was described as "a man born with so little, who wanted to be so much more". Shoojit Sircar's 2021 biopic of the martyr, hits that key theme home, by using the most unconventional approach. But Sardar Udham doesn't work despite its template, it works because of it . The filmmaking on display here is so incredible that instead of flattening the individuality of its revolutionary, the film unfolds obliquely, and with restraint. The result is one of the best Indian biopics we've had and yes, one of the best Bollywood films in years.
In the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre that took place on 13th April 1919, over a thousand men, women & children were shot dead by Reginald Dyer (Andrew Havill) on the orders of Michael O'Dwyer, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab back then. The film's storyline pans from 1919 to 1940. After being released from the Punjab police, Udham learns from his comrade that most of the leaders of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) have been either arrested or shot down by the British (including his friend Bhagat Singh). He then ventures on to team up with a bunch of expatriates, stating an exterior plan of regrouping the lost rebels. At this point, we realise that Sircar and his writers, Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya aren't going to go the conventional route. Instead of telling the story from the POV of a family member or a lover, they tell it on the behalf of an entire nation. The use of longer lenses and Avik Mukhopadhyay's visually unblemished cinematography, reinforces that tone of the film. Shantanu Moitra's score does all the wonders you would want a sublime soundtrack of a film of this nature to do. It almost disappears when you stop noticing it along the halfway mark of the film, since you're so entrapped in the drama and emotion of it all.
Then there's Vicky Kaushal incredibly restrained performance, unusual for a Bollywood actor in a film of this caliber. There's nothing actorly about him in this film. Of course, I mean that as a compliment. In majority of scenes, he slips into the background and shadows (one scene in particular reminded me of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now). At the same time, when the screenplay prods him to make a statement, he explodes, making all the silent and restraint in the scenes that came before all the more worth it. The film treads the line of not going the jingoist route, while also not reducing the British characters to caricatures. It presents itself clearly, in case you had any doubt, in this one scene in particular where a Swain tells Udham, "Well, you must really hate the British". Udham with a tinge of smile says: "No, I've many British friends. I don't hate you [either]. You're just doing your job." His love interest, Shruti is played by Banita Sandhu. The muted character, symbolic of how he's surrounded by people unable to raise their collective voice against the Raj, provided a purpose in Udham's life before the unfortunate incident took place. When the film travels back and forth between Russia and London, jumping timelines, it makes sure we go along Udham's journey knowing this burden that he's carrying along with him. At the Caxton Hall, we see him put six rounds into frail old O'Dwyer and two other former servants of the Raj. More contemporary directors need to take notes on how Sircar chooses to spend and direct the few minutes leading upto this sequence. After he announces his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad – representative of the religious unity of India, he tells the court that, "Some Indians have begun enjoying slavery". I sat there, watching how Sircar had quite cheekily smuggled in thrilling contemporary commentary between the lines.
When it comes to narrative cinema, there is always an implicit contract between the filmmaker and the audience that one should be aware of going in. There are many myths around whether or not Udham Singh was really at Jallianwala Bagh when the tragedy took place. Sircar takes the liberty most biopics usually succumb to (the way the film skips over how Udham worked as a lingerie salesman and a movie set extra in London), and uses it to its maximum effect. He makes sure that we realise: portraying the exact reality isn't necessarily important. The aim is to evoke the emotion: a feeling of what was lost. A feeling of how it was being there, fighting for your country's freedom and basic rights and yet being crushed by the mounting imperialistic power. The post-massacre sequence feels tedious and at times even difficult to watch, because Sircar wants us to take notice of how unpleasant it actually was by placing us directly into the protagonist's head. We experience things as he does, without any exposition. I couldn't help but get zoned out for a second, thinking "This. This is how you make a biopic". The makers realise that what freedom fighters of the time went through can only be somewhat replicated and reflected through a film that feels atmospheric, hermetic and bleak. Udham Singh could've been any of us; someone who's even at an individual level struggling to see his place in the world along with the country he's fighting for. And yet, he wasn't. And that's what made him a revolutionary.
The 163-minute film from Shoojit Sircar cements his place as one of the best currently working directors our country has. It comes across as his passion project, not just due to its seamless production design, but also thanks to its brilliant narrative structure. You know a film has achieved what it set out to do when it leaves a lump in your throat by the end, without ever going the melodramatic route.