'Sardar Udham': A dedication to dissent
Shoojit Sircar’s biopic of the patriot is a stunning slice of history mirroring our fractious present and cautioning us about the pitfalls of the future
Cinema, at its best, is a conversation. What you see in a film is often all about the nuggets of your own heart and mind that you imbue into it. At times movies verbalize the unspoken buried deep inside you, at others amplify the spirit of the times, becoming the bearers of the zeitgeist. And, in doing so, redefine their own aesthetic ambit.
Like Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham—a one of a kind, powerful cinematic testament to the pertinence of protest, that comes disguised as the flavor of the season, i.e., biopic of a patriot from the past.
My dialogue with the film started on a note of skepticism. That beautiful, painterly shot of a mist-filled village in Punjab with haze hanging heavy on every tree; the dogs, sledges and sprawling majesty of the snow in Afghanistan. The consciously designed look, the grey blue palette, the dim lighting—ticking all right the boxes, serving all the cosmetic elements that we associate with the epics from the West. Didn’t that top shot of the cars and the crowd feel straight out of Road to Perdition? Is Sircar trying to aestheticize the idea of Indian nationalism to make it more consumable for the West? Was he telling the tale of Udham Singh in the mode and scale of a Dr Zhivago? While eschewing shrill jingoism, was he tilting too dangerously on the side of the exquisite? Then there’s the constant thriller like move back and forth in time offering a scattered selection of scenes from the life of Udham Singh. Life in the orphanage where he was christened Udham Singh from Sher Singh, a vague, ambiguous, unsubstantiated romance with Reshma (the lovely Banita Sandhu), serving a jail sentence for possessing arms, being a part of Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) to the alliance with the communist Eileen Palmer to sensing solidarity in Irish Republican Army (IRA). Will all of it come together to make him a whole? Will the endless circle of jail, raids, questioning and
tortures on screen lead to some sound perspective on the act Udham Singh is defined with—the killing, after a long wait of 20 years, of Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab held responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?
Despite all these apprehensions something more kept sucking me into the film. The radio in the background broadcasting on Hitler, Mussolini and forces of fascism. A photo of Bhagat Singh, clutched in the palms, held on to dearly, as though it was life itself. The talk of the young consciously kissing the noose. Appealing to the conscience of the Indians comfortably settled abroad. A supposed killer taking oath, not on the Bible or the Bhagwad Geeta, but the eternal saga of love, Heer Ranjha. The press being coerced into not reporting his side of the story in the trial. Elements strewn all over the film but not without a reason, belonging squarely to their times but rising above it to get framed in a poignant, impassioned timeliness by Sircar. A stunning slice of history mirroring the fractious present and cautioning us about the pitfalls of the future.
It’s hard not to apprehend the topicality of the persistent talk of mobs, Section 144 and sedition. The state that regards revolution as dangerous, insists on curbing rebellion and using fear as a deterrent, insisting on setting an example and teaching a lesson by doling out a severe punishment that, in turn, instils a fear of punishment.
There are pertinent questions asked through the figure of Udham Singh. What is it that distinguishes revenge from dissent, a terrorist from a protestor? Is fighting for one’s freedom a crime? It is underscored in Udham Singh’s resolve in not killing O’Dwyer when he was his employee but in full public view in Caxton Hall as a bold statement of protest.
In all this Britishers are not treated like caricatures. They never stop being humans, even when they talk of White Man’s burden, of the savagery of Indians. In fact, they become reminders of the fact that imperialism may not just be a force out there, it’s not just about what one country subjects another to. British may have left but what of the more dangerous trap of an internal colonialism?
Sircar saves up the most important part—the Jallianwala Bagh massacre—for the very last. The footnote or fine print in history, that Udham Singh calls it, shaped him for life. Sircar devotes 50 odd minutes to the searing, prolonged “climax” if one were to call it that. He does so deliberately, is unflinching in recreating the violence, the blood and gore, the thirst for water, the dry throats, the last breaths of the dying, the huge pile up of bodies, looking like an art installation at one moment, reminding one of Danish Siddiqui’s shots of the COVID deaths in another. It’s endlessly disquieting and distressing. It makes you recoil but Sircar forces you to stay, as though making you bear witness to what that moment truly was, what it actually signifies as opposed to the ridiculousness of its garish appropriation now. An unfathomable tragedy transformed into mere kitsch.
It’s in the midst of the dead and the wounded that a young Udham doesn’t just lose Reshma, the one he holds dear, but the personal ceases to matter entirely. Vicky Kaushal is astounding, living the role from within as he enquires in the dark hell for those alive, tells the injured not to fall asleep, makes a wounded kid dream of flying kites. Sircar turns it into a Brechtian set piece. Udham pulling the cart and ferrying the injured approximating a Mother Courage like figure. I could even imagine him saying: “Let all of you who still survive/ Get out of bed and look alive!”
Meanwhile, in a move back to the eve of his hanging, Udham Singh recounts being told by a granthi (reciter of religious texts) that youth is a gift from God, and it is up to us to wither it away or give it meaning. A moment that encompasses and salutes all the young lives, past and present, that have dissented for what is right, and for the larger good of humanity. It’s tough not to get moved when Udham asks—"Meri jawani ka matlab bana? Ya zaaya kar di? (Did my life become meaningful or did I fritter it away?). All he asked for was something simple: “I was a revolutionary. Let the world know it”. With a name like Ram Mohammad Singh Azad tattoed on his arm he couldn’t have been anyone but a revolutionary. Be it seventy years back or in the present day.