Many Bollywood patriotic dramas tend to portray freedom fighters as symbols -- reducing them to ragged generalities, filtering their complexities into neat boxes of commodities for a multiplex audience.
However, Shoojit Sircar’s latest, Sardar Udham, available on Amazon Prime Video, deconstructs such frustrations to present something unique - a revolutionary and his mindset, a rebel and his (transcontinental) partners, a person and his individuality -- all free of narrow-minded smudges that relish in facile generalisations or crass wide strokes.
Written by Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, this movie foregoes the chronological sweep of most biopics in favour of a non-linear storyline to highlight a key Indian story.
If one could condense a human existence into a few key events, Udham's (Vicky Kaushal) journey would have gone somewhat like this - experiencing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 1919), assassinating Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O'Dwyer (March 1940), and being hung (July 1940).
Sircar doesn’t treat Udham’s life as a highlights package, extracting the most striking montages from an already charged story so the other events don’t fall into a chronological pattern-shunning an explosive opening or climax.
He first aims to grasp the film’s central theme, the various interconnected components of the big picture, in the hope that his selections would result in an entertaining film. This devotion may have aided the filmmaker in achieving an elusive goal-- unlocking the biopic code.
Sardar Udham commences at a jail in Punjab in 1931, just after the freedom fighter is released. It then jumps back and forth between two timeframes, showing Udham fleeing the Punjab Police and his early years as a revolutionary, when he was stirred up by and befriended Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar).
After Udham murders Dwyer (Shaun Scott), the split narrative returns; one section focuses on present-day questioning by a Scotland Yard officer, Swain (Stephen Hogan), and the other on the freedom fighter’s odyssey in the UK from 1934 to 1940. This option is maintained until the very end, switching between the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and Udham’s last day.
From a cinematic standpoint, the picture is incredibly well-produced. It has accurately depicted the period, particularly London city and all of the cars from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the buildings and streets.
However, the film takes its time finding an insightful rhythm. The first edit is choppy and distracting. Following Dwyer's assassination, the squabbles fade away, revealing a multi-layered narrative.
The film also glorifies the 'violent' revolutionaries. They were not hasty or brutal, as it repeatedly implies, but clever and empathetic, always aware of their ultimate goal, demolishing British imperialism.
Working for Dwyer, Udham had numerous opportunities to assassinate the ruthless governor. But, for him, the perceived motivation was just as important as the outcome. With one slip, the assassination would have turned into a murder, and the rebel would have been labelled a slave. Moments like when Sardar Udham refers to the British Empire as a ‘trading company,’ one can feel the wrath of a worker against a corporation, a rage that is still very much alive in many nations today.
Bursting with marked contexts, complexities and contradictions with a ‘360 degree- filmmaking,’ Sircar’s movie enchants the audience in a journey that grasps the true essence of Indian martyrs.
This article is written by Shadya Naher Sheyam who is a student at the Department of International Relations in Bangladesh University of Professionals.