The year is 1931, we first hear the clang of prison bars over a black screen, a policeman soon comes into view and unlocks a cell, where our hero is lying. “Azaadi mubarak ho” the cop says, congratulating him on his freedom, the first dialogue in the 2021 biopic ‘Sardar Udham’, perhaps a deliberate use of irony, because the revolutionary never saw what he fought for all his life – the independence of India from British rule.
Written by Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah, the film’s directed by Shoojit Sircar, who has delivered some quirky movies in the past, but is new to the historical drama territory. Actor Vicky Kaushal plays the titular role of Udham Singh with aplomb, exuding every bit the stubborn-obsessive revolutionary who wants to revive the broken spirit of Indians and send a strong message to their British oppressors – they must quit India. He went down the pages of history for assassinating the former Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who had approved of General Dyer’s massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh, where soldiers open-fired at a peaceful gathering of unarmed protestors, killing and wounding over 2000 innocents. The movie follows Udham’s journey from India to England, and how he patiently plotted the assassination over years.
What’s most applause-worthy about ‘Sardar Udham’ is how the makers haven’t scrimped at all when it comes to the sets and props. More often than not, too much money is spent on big-ticket actors, and little of the budget is left to spend on actual production value. Not with this film. From the snow-cold wilderness of Russia, to the alleys of London, or the bloodied-streets of Punjab, Shoojit Sircar has lavishly shot this epic tale, never resorting to clever tricks of photography or storytelling to avoid the extra costs of making a period piece. With a significant foreign cast playing roles of British officers and activists, Sircar lays his bets on some interesting actors. Stephen Hogan plays detective John Swaine, delivering a measured performance as the Britisher in-charge of Udham’s case and as someone who seems to understand the Indian’s ideological purpose. What we end up with is a solid first hour, of how Udham Singh flees India, despite being under surveillance, hoping to gather support for India’s independence movement abroad. Indian viewers will find themselves reaching for tissues in the first hour itself.
What makes the movie falter is Shoojit Sircar’s lack of faith in the audience – because his team of writers over-imagine, over-explain and overstretch a tale that could’ve been wrapped up in two hours. But there’s an additional 40 minutes of fictional things that were unnecessary. For example, there are some fictional interactions between Udham Singh and O’Dwyer in London (months before the murder), which is an attempt by the makers to display just ‘how evil’ Dwyer was. There’s also a pointless sequence of Udham ranting against the British, while he is drunk and alone at a London park. And then, out of nowhere, there’s a girl (Banita Sandhu), introduced in flashbacks, after zero foreshadowing in the first 60 minutes. It was quite disappointing to see Sircar resorting to the typical Bollywood trope of romance, but thankfully, he doesn’t overdo it. And there are no songs. Phew.
The movie has a heart-wrenching flashback to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, when Udham Singh was a 20-year-old man. The film doesn’t hold back on the gory details of the bloodbath, and will have viewers in tears. But, again, Sircar and team stretch the night of the massacre for far too long, showing sequence after sequence of mangled bodies being carried around, of mothers and children wailing in excruciating pain. It goes on for about 30 minutes. And while I was hoping for a longer/fiery courtroom exchange at the end, when Udham finally goes on trial for killing O’Dwyer, that bit was surprisingly brief.
Despite projecting Udham as a revolutionary who wasn’t just hankering for ‘revenge’ for Jallianwala in the beginning, they sort-of reduce him to just that – a man thirsting for vengeance. They wash away all the other layers to him towards the climax – like that of the working class Indian immigrant who worked several odd jobs around the world, to both survive and gain support for the Indian cause of Independence.
Flawed as it is, ‘Sardar Udham’ is a long due tribute to the revolutionary and is performed to perfection by Vicky Kaushal. It’s a 7.5/10 from me.
(The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime.)
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