Director: Shoojit Sircar
Writers: Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Ritesh Shah
Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Banita Sandhu, Amol Parashar
Cinematographer: Avik Mukhopadhyay
Editor: Chandrashekhar Prajapati
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Koi zinda hai? The intrinsic horror of this question comes viscerally alive in the last act of Sardar Udham. It is April 13, 1919. The cry echoes through the night as a teenage Udham rummages through piles of bodies, looking for the wounded among the dead. Earlier that evening, General Dyer and his soldiers unleashed terror on thousands of men, women and children who had gathered peacefully in Jallianwala Bagh. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. There was nowhere to run. The bodies slumped on top of each other but the bullets didn’t stop. So many rounds were used that at one point, Udham now trips on the shells.
Director Shoojit Sircar wholly immerses us into the violence of that historic massacre. The camera lingers on open wounds, a severed hand, children, dead and bleeding. We see the physical exertion and the impossibility of Udham’s desperate attempt to save as many lives as he can. We see doctors, nurses and neighbors struggling to do the same. It’s a superbly executed sequence, chilling, raw and exactly long enough to drive home the magnitude of the evil which took place. It also explains how a man can be so brutalised that he nurtures revenge for more than two decades. Udham isn’t just scarred. A part of him is annihilated.
We don’t know if Udham’s role here is fact. Sardar Udham is a dramatised version of events. Shoojit has said in interviews that one of the biggest challenges in making the film was piecing it together. What is known is that on March 13, 1940, Udham assassinated Sir Michael O’ Dwyer in London. O’Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh genocide. He was Dyer’s boss and ultimately, responsible for his actions.
As Shoojit and his screenplay writers Shubendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah tell it, Udham was the original international man of mystery. Our first and last visual of him is in jail. But he also manages to dodge authorities and travel to several countries including the U.K and the U.S.S.R. He works at a factory, does a stint as a lingerie salesman and another as house help. He belongs to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and is highly influenced by friend and mentor Bhagat Singh. Udham has many passports and many names, including Frank Brazil. In court, he insists that his real name is Ram Mohammad Singh Azad to signify religious unity.
Until the last hour, Udham is rendered as largely unknowable. He is a shadow, slipping into his cousin’s house at dawn for a meal or shadowing the many O’Dwyers in London to find the one he wants to kill. The screenplay hopscotches between years, moving within minutes from 1933 U.S.S.R to 1927 Lahore and 1934 London. We are meant to piece together the man from these fractured glimpses. But the design makes it difficult for the story to have dramatic or emotional propulsion. Sardar Udham is two hours and forty-two minutes long and for much of its first two acts, inert. The film finds its beating heart only when the Jallianwala Bagh portion begins.
What’s more admirable is the world-building. DOP Avik Mukhopadhyay, production designer Mansi Dhruv Mehta and international production designer Dmitrii Malich meticulously recreate the various time periods. Shantanu Moitra’s somber background score is sparingly used. Not a frame feels out of place. Even the faces of the actors – the sprawling cast doesn’t have too many recognisable names – fit the time. And at the center is Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham. It’s a role with big demands and the actor delivers. He ages convincingly in front of our eyes. He pulls off scenes of extreme trauma in jail and is able to summon the haunted, hollow expression of a man who marinates murder in his head for 21 years. But the film’s screenplay insists that the character remains a cipher, which becomes a hurdle. It is only towards the end that we get a sense of him in a deeper way.
Amol Parashar as Bhagat Singh has more levity and he does well. I wish there were more scenes of the two together. Banita Sandhu, who was lovely in Shoojit’s October, also returns as Uddham’s love interest Reshma. She has an endearing vivacity about her but doesn’t have very much to do. Thankfully Shoojit has cast solid actors in the British roles – Shaun Scott as O’Dwyer and Andrew Havill as General Dyer. It’s the rare instance of white people in a Hindi film not coming off as caricatures.
Sardar Udham is the slowest of slow burns. Which isn’t unusual for Shoojit. You remember the static rhythms of October? Like that film, Sardar Udham also eventually engulfs you. But the difference in duration – October was less than two hours – proves to be punishing.
Still, I recommend that you see Sardar Udham for the extent of its ambition. And for the way in which the film, without resorting to chest-thumping or jingoism, establishes what patriotism looks like. At one point, Bhagat Singh in jail, writes ideology acchi aur sahi honi chahiye nahi toh uske bina joh azadi milegi woh ghulami se bhi darawani hogi.
That’s a message we could use today.
You can watch the film on Amazon Prime Video.