Shoojit Sircar Cracks the Biopic Code With ‘Sardar Udham’

Growing up, I, like numerous Indians, believed that the line “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” came from M.K. Gandhi. I had internalised that misattribution so well that it didn’t even cross my mind to cross-check it. That mindset also marked many Bollywood patriotic dramas. Such films were not as interested in freedom fighters as people, but freedom fighters as symbols – reducing them to scrappy generalities, distilling their complexities into neat commodities for a multiplex audience. Which got worse with time: Enough has been written about Bollywood’s bullying nationalism over the last seven years.

But Shoojit Sircar’s latest, Sardar Udham, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, declutters such insecurities to present something rare: a revolutionary and his ideologies, a rebel and his (transcontinental) allies, a person and his personhood – untainted by narrow-minded stains that revel in facile generalisations or crass broad strokes. Written by Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Sardar Udham discards the chronological sweep central to most biopics, and adopts a non-linear narrative, to underscore a significant Indian story.

If at all one could reduce a human life to a few significant episodes, then Udham’s (Vicky Kaushal) journey would have read the following: witnessing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 1919); assassinating the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer (March 1940); getting hanged (July 1940). Here’s how they unfold in the 163-minute drama (no spoilers – as they won’t affect your perception of the film – but if you’re paranoid, then don’t read the next few words): assassination (27th minute), bloodbath (117th minute), execution (150th minute).

Barring Udham’s death, the other events don’t fall into a neat chronological pattern – eschewing an explosive opening or climax – because Sircar doesn’t treat the freedom fighter’s life as a ‘highlights package’, extracting the most dramatic mileage from an already charged story. He first wants to understand the film’s centrepiece – the different interlinked parts of the ‘big picture’ – hoping that those choices also produce an entertaining film. This allegiance may have helped the filmmaker nail an elusive target: cracking the biopic code.

Sardar Udham opens in a jail in Punjab, in 1931, when the freedom fighter has just been released. It then juggles two timelines for a bit: Udham fleeing from the Punjab police, and his early days as a revolutionary, when he was inspired by, and befriended, Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar). The split narrative returns after Udham has killed Dwyer (Shaun Scott): one part is centred on the present-day interrogations by a Scotland Yard officer, Swain (Stephen Hogan), and the other depicts the freedom fighter’s journey in the UK from 1934 to 1940. This choice persists right till the end, alternating between the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Udham’s final day.

Most homegrown patriotic films, depicting the Crown rule, flatten the individualities of the freedom movements and their leaders. Such self-serving exercises, primarily aimed at the box-office riches, are unable to transcend the most basic – and the most filmy – insights: oppressed Indians, oppressive Britishers; hunger strikes; jails; revolts; assassinations. It’s not just history for dummies but for the brain-dead. They isolate the audiences from the true core of the country, leaving them with a few buzzwords – an extension of that mindset is daily broadcast on news channels, Twitter timelines and casual conversations, deploying such bastardised terms as “sedition”, “anti-national”, “urban Naxals”, it is a long list.

Sircar’s movie understands that only a ‘360-degree-filmmaking’ – marked by contexts, contradictions and complexities – can help grasp the true essence of Indian martyrs. Because isn’t that the whole crux of vitriolic debates these days: Who is an Indian — and what is India? Questions that were not resolved in 1947, questions that still tear the country apart. And that matters, a lot, because if you don’t know your story, your history, someone else will write it for you, and then you’ll have no control on how that is told. It’s one of the reasons Sardar Udham is a rare gem.

But the movie takes its time to find a meaningful rhythm. The initial editing is choppy and distracting: many unmotivated cuts, and a bizarre reluctance to stay with a shot, forbid meaningful engagement. But after Dwyer’s assassination, the quibbles smoothen out to spotlight a layered story. We notice many Indians collaborating with the British, especially in the Punjab Police and the Scotland Yard. This motif pricks even more when Dwyer tells Udham, working as his servant, that, “That’s the thing I like about Indians. The willingness to please.” This subplot, however, gets a comforting closure when Udham tells the court that, “Some Indians have begun enjoying slavery” – as if someone demolished the walls of a soundproof room.

Even the routine interrogations – featuring Udham, Swain and an Indian translator – aim high. They follow a fixed pattern: Swain probes, Hindi translation, a mute Udham – no dialogue-baazi, no melodramatic rage. But then something happens that reveals the freedom fighter’s character and the film’s purpose. “Well, you must really hate the British,” Swain tells him, trying his best to break Udham. A calm reply with a tinge of smile: “No, I’ve many British friends (…) I don’t hate you [either]. You’re just doing your job.”

Such clear-eyed profound writing marks the entire film – so much so that I’m hard pressed to pick a favourite scene. Maybe it’s the one where Bhagat Singh, explaining his socialist commitment, declares, “A revolutionary has to follow certain principles. You can’t be prejudiced, communal, or casteist. There can be no social or economic difference. The only truth is equality.” Or the one where he says, “Independence without a true ideology can be worse than slavery.” Or even the one where, working at a factory floor in London, Udham gets enraged by a British supervisor insulting his friend. But his anger doesn’t stem from nationalist sentiments alone, for he tells everyone to stop working, including a few British employees. He then addresses all of them, explaining the different languages of oppression, drawing a through-line between the oppressed workers and the enslaved Indians, thundering, “Hum bhi insaan hain, yaar. Duniya me jo bhi hai, humaara bhi toh hai [We are also people, man. This world belongs to us as well].” Or the one where the people of Punjab are protesting the Rowlatt Act and the cops march to stop them, eliciting an unsettling temporal distortion: Is it Amritsar 1919, I thought, or Delhi 2021?

Kaushal turns in a terrific textured performance, as nuanced as the writing. When he’s arrested by the cops after shooting Dwyer, he’s not angry or bitter; instead, his eyes are coloured with content and pride. There’s a perceptible urgency in his speech, especially when he’s mixing Hindi and (broken) English. He isn’t fixated on scene-chewing antics, either, matching the film’s rhythm with impressive precision. When the writing demands restraint, he slips into the background; when it prods him to make a statement, he explodes. Even the supporting cast is quite accomplished. Parashar, with a feather-light presence, is an excellent choice to play Bhagat Singh, flitting from casual humour to memorable profundity. Hogan and Scott shine, too, as Dwyer and Swain are not caricaturised. The detective even warms up to Udham, their relationship culminating in an unexpectedly moving coda.

The movie also dignifies the ‘violent’ freedom fighters. They were not rash or bloodthirsty, it implies again and again, but sharp and compassionate, who always knew their ultimate target: British imperialism. Working for Dwyer, Udham had ample opportunities to kill the remorseless governor. But for him, the perceived motive mattered as much as the result. One misstep, and the assassination would have become a murder – a revolutionary would have been branded a slave.

It’s a marked departure from the simplistic portrayals that almost interpret their actions as vigilantism (hello, Rang De Basanti). When Udham calls the British Empire a “trading company”, you feel the rage of a worker against a corporation – a rage very much alive, very much pertinent, in many countries today. Such motifs make Sardar Udham truly universal, speaking to the oppressed classes all around the world. It reminded me of a 2020 Nagraj Manjule interview where, downplaying the increasing difficulties of making a political film in India, he said, “I’ve been imprisoned for a long time. Only the jailer keeps changing.”

By contextualising Udham and Bhagat Singh’s motives, Sircar accomplishes two main goals: a) making the revolutionaries bigger – and better – than the current discourse of parochial nationalism that often misappropriates them and b) exemplifying the true essence of azaadi. Because when it comes to independence, only two questions matter: Freedom to whom, freedom from whom?

Featured image credit: Amazon Prime Video