By Manik Sharma Oct. 18, 2021
Bafflingly large in scale, immaculately detailed, resoundingly acted, Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham is revolutionary filmmaking in the context of the patriotic Bollywood film.
The patriotic Hindi film has always been rooted in the ideas of comic book heroism. The stories are known, their sacrifices heralded, and all the film intends or subsequently manages to do is narrate it to an amplified, more exotic pace and tone. Never has a film cultivated the pain of colonialism like a cadaver that rots in the back of the closet. Because history is made significant by its most important events, a lot goes unsaid and unrecognized in the incubation of defiance that India’s freedom fighters were inadvertently the subjects of.
To that effect, Shoojit Sircar’s slow burn Sardar Udham, now playing on Amazon Prime, is a film like no other. It is remarkable for its patience, for its ambition and for the grammar it adopts in the face of a long history that couldn’t do much else other than romanticise bravado.
Freedom fighters are often cast as brave, selfless vigilantes with a near elusive view of the world around them. To most else, their desperation is also evidence of their frivolity.
A fictionalised account about the life of a man, we only know through his climactic deed – the killing of Michael O’Dwyer the acting governor at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in April of 1919 – Sardar Udham is a slow, procedural look at a mysterious life, forked by the idea of revenge and revolution.
Vicky Kaushal, perhaps in the role of his career, shines as a bitter and disillusioned man rifling through streets, snowy meadows and the fields of Punjab. Udham Singh famously assassinated the former governor in the heart of London, but the specifics of that event are established well in advance to make room for a cautiously cold exploration of Singh’s psyche. Freedom fighters are often cast as brave, selfless vigilantes with a near elusive view of the world around them. To most else, their desperation is also evidence of their frivolity. Surely, more can be accomplished by living on?
We, as an audience, simply aren’t acclimatised to this level of competence in the Hindi film industry.
Sircar has dealt with conflict before – Yahaan and Madras Café – but this film exists on another planet. Its scale is baffling, its attention to detail so beguiling and life-like you’d be forgiven to assume it’s a foreign production altogether. We, as an audience, simply aren’t acclimatised to this level of competence in the Hindi film industry. The cinematography doesn’t use the vast snowy expanses of the former USSR, for example, for the photographic flourish alone, but for its gestating quality it brings to a man suffering, perhaps, from the guilt of being the survivor.
Udham Singh waited a couple of decades to exact revenge on O’Dwyer and it is these mysterious years in between, that the film chooses to not erase as leftovers of insignificance, but as the time during which a cracked heart and a distraught mind sought salvation in every moment that did not usher him to his purpose. Most patriotic films want to jump from conflict to revenge because it is the easiest leap to salvation from the grief, history piles upon us. Radically, Sircar flips the formula and gives us catharsis before dragging us through the ruins, inch by inch, of a defiled country, of a bloodied landscape, of a massacre that is the stuff of our coldest, nightmares.
One of the key feats of Sircar’s film is its humanising of the freedom fighter, as not just the cocky, assured rebel but as the human scarred and rendered inaccessible to the world’s charms.
The last hour of Sardar Udham will perhaps be remembered as one of the most iconic, painfully torturous yet vital hours of cinema ever constructed in this country. Udham – narrative improvisation again – survives the Jallianwala massacre by a matter of chance. He spends the entire night of the massacre, rescuing bodies, carrying them on his shoulders, or carts – whatever he can find. “Koi zinda hai?” a voice echoes, faceless, in the background as a young Udham parries bodies, children, women, some of them disembodied. It’s the numbing length, the observational quality of this sequence that makes it as agonising as it is affecting. You are dragged in by the pain, for the first time in Indian film history, into the visceral violence of that fateful night. Massacres are underscored by history and just as easily nudged to the side by numerical qualifiers. Sircar, instead, chooses to moon over the pile of tissue, bones and blood that most of us would rather not leave the cinema halls with. It’s even more discomforting and effective, perhaps, because it pierces the comforting safety of your home.
One of the key feats of Sircar’s film is its humanising of the freedom fighter, as not just the cocky, assured rebel but as the human scarred and rendered inaccessible to the world’s charms. His likeness of laddoos, his endearingly intimate bond with Bhagat Singh are subtle yet telling touches of humanity that a victim is robbed of in the face of great suffering and pain. Technically flawless, emotionally crushing and performed audaciously by an actor who can only get better with time, Shoojit Sircar reinvents the wheel by, to an extent, breaking it. This is not entertainment, this is how epics must be cast, how history should be tethered, how cinema, our new cinema should attribute to our past, a cultural moment.