Sardar Udham review: A revolutionary and the ‘carrier’ of the massacred

Vicky Kaushal’s intense act, director Shoojit Sircar’s brutal depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre leaves you numb

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Vicky Kaushal (c) in and as Sardar Udham [2021]

By Mayur Lookhar

Time heals all wounds. Does it or do the wounds just wither away with the passage of time? Film maker Shoojit Sircar, best known for his contemporary slice of life stories, reopens old wounds with Sardar Udham [2021]. And perhaps he wants to rub it in again.  Hang on, this is Jallianwala Bagh massacre [1919], the most barbaric act committed by the British imperialists in India. Why would one want to reopen such terrifying wounds 102 years later? Maybe, it is a timely revisit.

Let’s be honest. Today most freedom struggle movements, sacrifices, blood, sweat of the revolutionary, martyrs has been confined to a chapter in history books.  A visit to memorial site has become a part of a tour itinerary. Is this the India that our martyrs envisaged for us?  No, they don’t seek any hero worship. They are happy for the free air that we breath. What’s needed though is a better telling/retelling of the tales of our heroes.

In the case of Shaheed-i-Azam [the great martyr] Udham Singh, this is a story that’s hardly told in developing India.  We recall Parikshit Sahni playing Udham Singh in Jallian Wala Bagh [1977]. A year earlier, we had the Punjabi film Sarfarosh: The Story of Shaheed Udham Singh.  Years later, Raj Babbar essayed the martyr’s role in the unheralded film Shaheed Udham Singh [2000]. It’s fair to say all these years, Udham Singh has largely remained an untouchable hero in Indian cinema. 

What does Shoojit Sircar’s film offer? Well, for starters a better scale, realistic approach, able cast and above all a brutal retelling of British barbarism. The ghastly scenes play out unabatingly, a good 30-40 [non-stop] minutes of the 162-minute screenplay.  This one really cuts you deep in the flesh. The pain simply refusing to go away. First the unabashed depravity, brutality, and later the bone-chilling destruction feels like your skin has just melted to the bone. Sure this sight is not for the faint hearted.  A century later, Sircar and cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay literally bring the tragedy back to life. Amidst this carnage, pile of bodies, our man Udham Singh [Vicky Kaushal] piles on carrying the brutally wounded in the hope that some may survive this act of terror.  That dark night was the birth of the revolutionary Udham Singh.

Sircar and his writers Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Ritesh Shah adopt a non-linear approach to the story, choosing to depict the massacre only at the latter end.  The film opens with Udham Singh getting his freedom and soon begins the tough long journey seeking retribution for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This journey plays out like a slow-burner.

Whilst in England, nostalgia grips Udham regularly in his conversation/situation. This trope is one too many and perhaps doesn’t bring continuity to the screenplay. The man though experiences life, culture in imperialist United Kingdom in the 1930s.  There is no smash-and-grab play here but a long vigil. Phew, the sight of Udham Singh visiting the grave of General Reginald Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, reminds us how history can be subjective. The arsonist imperial will never admit to its crimes against humanity.  

A human right cause is often governed by ideologies of democracy, socialism, communism. [Remarkably, today how some nations hide expansionism under the garb of communism]. Fuelled by retribution but the changing socio, economic, political landscape of Great Britain help Udham get a new perspective.  Hate the imperial ideology, but not the common people of Britain.  The weaking of Marxism in the impending world war period perhaps reduces Udham to being a pariah.  Sircar’s film doesn’t demonises all of Britain, but the racial undertone is reflected through the attitude of men like Dyer, Michael O’Dwyer. King George VI [Simon Weir], too, shows his imperialist side.

New India is warming up to tales of unsung heroes. In the past, the historical snub was pointed towards historians, politicians suffering from colonial hangover.  Sardar Udham [2021] doesn’t seek any political, historical correction, it simply tells the story of Udham Singh sincerely. Maybe, some creative liberties have been taken. The character of Reshma [Banita Sandhu] adds to your curiosity.  More on her later, but it’s Vicky Kaushal’s portrayal of Udham Singh that leaves a lasting impression of the revolutionary.

The events in his life shaped his personality accordingly.  Innocence, emotional, resolute, later unpredictable, unshakable, Kaushal succeeds in emoting the different shade to the man.  He charms you as the teen working in cotton factory or courting the mute Reshma.  He is adorable in his broken English too.  Kaushal also brings a certain vulnerability to Udham Singh that makes you respect the character even more.  He wouldn’t strike you as the proverbial ‘sar pe kafan bandh ke aaya [a man with blood in his eyes] revolutionary.  The unpredictability, vulnerability, moments of confusion, self-doubt, all help to give us some idea into the character of the man.  Kaushal pays a fitting tribute to the resilience, undying spirit of the underrated hero.

The nationalists would not be amused, but we are mightily impressed with British actor Shaun Scott’s portrayal of Michael O’Dwyer – the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab.  It isn’t easy for a British actor to be playing a character who doesn’t enjoy a great image in India.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer’s [Andrew Havill] lack of remorse boils your blood.  Dyer was still sleepless on that fateful night of 13 April, O’Dwyer though unabashedly defends his brutality.  Sircar gives the two men the platform to explain their actions. Shaun Scott never loses that depravity to O’Dwyer in any scenes. His brilliant, intense showing helps him edge his co-actors in the film.

All along Bhagat Singh, Subhash Chandra Bose have been the face of Indian armed rebellion. The former would be happy to take a back seat in Sircar’s film.  Amol Parashar ‘s portrayal of Bhagat Singh is understated but refreshing.  Banita Sandhu returns with her second Hindi film. Much like October [2018], she is left to impress with her body language.  Argh, it’s frustrating to see her in these physically challenged roles.  You long to see, and hear from this maverick actor soon.

Udham Singh is slow for its large parts, but the film truly hits you in the last hour.  Production design for a pre-Independence patriotic film was a huge challenge, and perhaps out of reach for Indian cinema before.  Sardar Udham [2021] though turns a new corner with its fine production design. Avik Mukhopadhyay works his magic capturing this whole journey of Udham Singh neatly.  The brutal massacre and the following scenes are frightening yet emotionally captivating.

A Sardar Udham [2021], the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy is a reminder of the sacrifices our ancestors, freedom fighters, leaders have made.  They died to give us freedom. Now that we enjoy it, one musn’t take it for granted.  Don’t waste your youth. Pursue your dreams in a free India, but never lose sight of the valour of men like Sardar Udham. Take a bow, Sardar ji.

Sardar Udham is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.  Watch the trailer below.


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