Sometimes, what a film doesn't choose to be reveals its true identity. Sardar Udham is based on Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary known for assassinating the Englishman behind the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The film is essentially based on revenge – by an orphan who adopted multiple aliases, worked in over 20 countries, travelled far and wide to spread the doctrines of an underground Communist movement, got jailed for distributing protest literature, befriended Bhagat Singh, and shot dead the former lieutenant governor of Punjab in the heart of London. In short, the man's life is tailor-made for the sensory excesses of Bollywood hypernationalism. Imagine Vicky Kaushal's Udham Singh screaming "ghar mein ghus ke marenge!" after pumping bullets into Britain-based Michael O'Dwyer's chest. Imagine a montage of Udham Singh's tragic childhood, his cross-continent adventures and his desh-bhakti songs during his time in America. Imagine what a new-age Hindi historical would make of the myth featuring 19-year-old Udham smearing bloody soil from the Bagh onto his forehead. The temptation to be a bullet-point biopic, too, is immense: Imagine not going to town about Udham Singh's work as a movie extra (!) on Elephant Boy and The Four Feathers.
Miraculously, Shoojit Sircar's Sardar Udham is not that story. It excludes any information about its protagonist that might merit a trip into potboiler territory. His nomadic hustle through the 1920s is mentioned in passing. There is nothing about his upbringing. Precious little about his Ghadar Party roots. Even his personality is sullen, like the British weather, far from the charismatic crusader he was rumoured to be. The film opens with him being released after a brutal jail term in 1931. The specifics aren't mentioned. A Sikh guard – filmed in a way that suggests he's also the one behind (ideological) bars – makes a joke about his freedom being at odds with India's independence. In less than twenty minutes, Udham Singh kills O'Dwyer at Caxton Hall in 1940 and is arrested. His subsequent torture and interrogation are intercut with flashbacks of his years leading upto the assassination. This structure allows the film to impart a past that stays strictly in sync with the present. The plotting and exposition – his dealings with the IRA, the USSR and fellow trade unionists – depend on the questions he's asked.
What's fascinating is how economical these scenes are. Every moment is allowed to breathe: characters don't speak to inform the audience, they speak to be heard. This is also a rare Hindi period film that doesn't overplay its (terrific) production value. No frame screams: look, detailing! The environment – the London of the 1930s, the Amritsar of 1919, even the British cast – is incidental to the character's single-minded journey. He doesn't stop to smell the flowers, so there's no reason we should. Early on, an oddly long moment shows Udham Singh struggling through the endlessly snowy Soviet terrain. He almost freezes to death, but instead of turning the scene into a survival device, the score stays haunted. The transition is organic: The cold forces his fading mind to think back to a coal-heated winter morning with Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar). Their chat drops a hint of Udham Singh's socialist credentials, when Bhagat teases him for reading Heer Ranjha. Udham's love for the epic poem is likely linked to his fondness for laddoos: in a way, he consumes the "poisoned ladoo" of radical anticolonialism. But it's not a connection the screenplay insists we make. By extension, it indicates that knowing of Udham Singh's origins and interests is un-knowing the person he's become.
At the same time, the film seems to suspect that it isn't cinematically fertile enough. Consequently, it finds some "creative detours" hard to resist. For instance, Udham is seen working for the man he is out to kill. He gets a job as the retired O'Dwyer's helper – the film breaks character here – only so that we can see the white Westerner appearing remorseless about 1919. The exchange between the two is tropey, but what it does is unlock a rage within Udham Singh that he – and the viewer – was in danger of forgetting. Then there are the flashbacks of an Amritsari girl (Banita Sandhu) he once knew. It's always the heart. If her being deaf (Sandhu was comatose in Sircar's October) is supposed to be some allegory about the stifled cries of pre-independent India, or even an indictment of Gandhi's pacifism, it's an unnecessary one – especially in a film that trusts viewers to sense its sentimentality rather than see it.
Vicky Kaushal's performance is intriguing. It refuses to conform to conventional freedom-fighter and spy stereotypes. He plays Udham Singh as more of an ordinary man in pursuit of an extraordinary goal. We don't see Udham Singh biding his time in London, but Kaushal's subdued gait gives us a fair idea of the character's off-screen life. In fact, Kaushal is too meditative at times, lacking heft in the more "showy" moments – during a drunken monologue at a park, or in his broken-English equation with a British conspirator. But the actor nails the part only in the last hour, as does the film. It becomes an effect-and-cause narrative here – most movies build up to an end, but Sardar Udham builds up to the beginning. The flashpoint. The Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath, in gruesome and unforgiving detail. As a wide-eyed teenager, Kaushal is incredibly reactive here: if you listen closely, you can hear his gears shifting from adolescence to adulthood over the course of a single night. It reminded me of the war opening of Saving Private Ryan, where the sheer nakedness of the act itself reduces every question to an answer. And answers there are in Sardar Udham, even if they're not the ones we're looking for.
For one, the climax puts the film's bareboned treatment into perspective. While watching young Udham tiptoe between the bleeding pages of history, it becomes clear that his future battle is not so much for the humanity of a nation as the notion of humanity itself. This switch happens within the scene: he sets out to find a loved one, before his private sense of loss morphs into a collective sense of despair. By the end, he forgets – as do we – that he was even looking for someone. He is overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of death. The perpetrator could have been Portuguese for all he cared. Most films might have amplified the drama of him finding the corpse he's looking for. But this one never gives him – or the viewer – any sort of closure. The anatomy of mass destruction ensures that his life, his grief, loses its identity.
The climax tells a story supplied by hindsight. Throughout the film, Udham makes his distaste for British imperialism clear, insisting that the assassination is his political act of protest. But the visual reveal of the massacre suggests that his political – not unlike V's in V for Vendetta – was always rooted in the personal. It suggests that Kaushal's low-key indifference as Udham Singh was actually internal conflict – he's a man torn between cold revenge and the larger ideology of freedom. He adopts the vacuum between them. The movement is both an excuse and a statement. The image he cultivated in the following years may have only been a means to an end, which is why the film doesn't fetishize the flab of his two-decade-long quest. Displaying his other phases might have dignified the singularity of catharsis; it might have led the new-age viewer to believe that revolution is more of a cumulative instinct than a continuous feeling. It can be argued that the film – by circumventing the histrionics of context – reduces the man to his mission. But everything about the man is hidden in the heritage of this mission. After all, the darkest demons are often the ones we don't see.
The offbeat rhythm of Sardar Udham raises a pertinent question. Should we appreciate a film for what it isn't over what it is? When a scene doesn't go wrong in all the usual ways, does that mean it's right? My answer is both yes and no. Sardar Udham sheds the problematic grammar of the freedom-fighter epic, but the result is only technically engaging. Not all of its 164 minutes are rewarding. But the whole feels greater than the inert sum of its parts. I suppose its intellectual identity lies in the eyes of the beholder. At some level, I know I'm seeing what I want to see, irrespective of whether the makers intend it. Maybe I'm chasing shadows, looking for reasons to like a film that resists labels. I'm searching for a psychology, a method, even if there isn't. But perhaps filmmaking is about surprising the audience just as much as stimulating them. Perhaps storytelling is about expecting as much as editing. One inevitably leads to another. All one has to do is imagine. The movie will – and won't – do the rest.