SARDAR UDHAM (2021)

Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham
  • Release Date: 16/10/2021
  • Platform: Amazon Prime Video
  • Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Kirsty Averton, Tim Berrington, Stephen Hogan, Shaun Scott.
  • Director: Shoojit Sircar

A cinematic achievement of monumental proportions

— Ambar Chatterjee

Sardar Udham chronicles the life of Sardar Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal) who like so many others was at the receiving end of Britisher’s brutality on April 13th, 1919. That day remains engraved in the memory of every Indian as the day when the British proved that they were inhuman and murdered over 1000 unassuming, unarmed, and innocent civilians in broad daylight. Udham Singh loses the love of his life during the massacre and also sees death up close as he had never before. This changes him forever. He joins the Hindustani Socialist Republican Association (HRSA) and comes into contact with revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. Molded by their views and his own experiences, Udham Singh shapes into a dedicated and driven revolutionary. When the HRSA is annihilated after the arrest of Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh makes his way out of India to London where he plans to strike the British at the heart of their power. He plans to assassinate Michael O’ Dwyer who was the Governor-General of Punjab when General Dyer instrumented and executed the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.  

This is the best that Vicky Kaushal has ever been. His portrayal of the nuances of the tragedy that haunts Sardar Udham is so hauntingly real that it will give people a window into what the actual hero might have experienced when he was faced with the tragedy of a lifetime. Udham Singh is not a one-dimensional character. He is erratic, he is not a killer, and he can be calculative but is also unapologetic about showing a vulnerable side. One thing that remains constant throughout his life is the ideologies that he had picked up during his association with Bhagat Singh. Kaushal shuns his modern suave self and disappears behind the rustic and yet oddly polished skin of Udham Singh. I was shocked by his rendition of the portion where we see him as a naïve Sikh boy who is thrust in the middle of an abhorrent tragedy and has to spend a night searching for wounded among the dead.

The shot of him looking up in the sky to see vultures circling the Jalianwala Bagh and then the shot of him taking a dip in the lake and coming out baptized by the tragedy that has befallen him turning him into the spirited revolutionary that he becomes gave me goosebumps. His interrogation sequences are also envisioned beautifully and they add a lot to the mundane nature of question and answer sessions.

For a film of this nature to work, it was important to get the mood and feel right. Shoojit Sircar is a master storyteller and he knows how to create the perfect mood and pacing for his films. There is a constant feeling of foreboding and gloom that is effectively complemented by the overcast London weather that in itself adds a sense of somberness to the visuals. The look and feel of the characters tell us that all of them are in the grip of some tragedy or the other. Just after Udham Singh is released from prison, he breaks out of his 24*7 vigil by the CID and comes to meet his sister. The entire portion of him walking through the fields that are run over by a thick blanket of mist with a morose and yet determined background score complementing his movements and mannerisms tell us more about the character and his state of mind than any number of words could ever have. The way he walks in, has some food, wishes his sister well, and then unceremoniously walks out is enough to convey the feeling that he is a man on a mission and that he will not be returning home and this was his final meal at the hands of his sister.

Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham

Once in London, Udham Singh’s plan doesn’t work out immediately. He has to encounter many failures and is constantly under duress and scrutiny of the British intelligence and CID. His plans don’t pan out. His friends start doubting his abilities. He even gets in the employment of Michael O’ Dwyer but doesn’t kill him even though he gets many opportunities for reasons that make him the true revolutionary that he is. There comes a time when frustration starts getting the better of him and it is at this juncture that the perfect opportunity to avenge the Jalianwala Bagh massacre presents itself. The opportunity presents itself with an audience and the perfect setting to strike terror in the heart of the empire and also get one’s thoughts across to the men who refuse to listen.  

In the hands of a lesser director, Sardar Udham would have culminated with the assassination of Michael O’ Dwyer. But that is not the case with Shoojit Sircar. In his film, Dwyer is killed just about a quarter into the runtime. The film keeps its final 30 minutes or so to give us a version of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre that has never ever been envisioned and executed in such a manner. I had to pause the film in between to take a break from the carnage that was on display. It became increasingly difficult to watch what was unfolding. The violence and sufferings of the people were put up with such brutal realism that it is bound to give me nightmares in days to come. This sequence alone was worth the price of admission if there was any.

Bollywood normally gets the foreign actors almost always wrong but that is not the case here. Shaun Scott as Michael O’ Dwyer is almost as good as Vicky Kaushal. He doesn’t feel dramatic or overtly evil. He is someone who believes that what he and Dyer did were in the best interest of the crown and if given another chance, he would repeat it. He is so unapologetic about the massacre that he orchestrated that he comes across as a repugnant and evil entity even though he is not the least bit dramatic about his villainy. He is never shown mistreating any Indian or even Udham Singh when he is in his service. Kirsty Averton in a brief essay is fantastic. She shows a semblance of romantic inclination towards Udham Singh that the latter shuns unceremoniously but respectfully. Their chemistry was visible and effective.

Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham with Kirsty Averton

The way Shoojit Sircar chose to shoot, score and edit Sardar Udham accounted for 50% of the film’s greatness. The film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long but is so gripping and visually so captivating that I never felt that runtime. The color palette, the moody ambiance, and the tonal shift in the visual rendition between different segments contributed a lot to how we felt about particular sequences. The Background score was ever-present but only added to how we were feeling about certain sequences and never instructed us to feel in a certain way about a particular portion. The editing was temperamental but ever so effective.     

The only aspect of the film that was questionable was the unnecessary pushing of the communist agenda by depicting the protagonists and even the likes of Bhagat Singh as more of Communism inspired prodigies of a revolutionary struggle than the products of an inherently revolutionary free-thinking country and the abusive system that was crushing them under the wheels of subjugation and made them realize the true value of complete and total freedom.

Sardar Udham is a great cinematic achievement. This was a film that was tailor-made for theatrical release and I fail to understand why it was not released in theaters. The impact that certain scenes would have had on the large screen with Dolby Digital sound can never be replicated on the smaller screen no matter how good a surround sound system you have. I wish to see this film someday on the largest screen possible with the loudest and crispiest sound system at my disposal. I am confident that it would be an experience that I would cherish for a lifetime. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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