‘Sardar Udham’: a brilliant, red hot furnace that forges the portrait of a patriot

He may not have agreed to the title of this review, alluding to him as a patriot. For, that was never the point of his 21-year old stake-out to register a protest that would shake the British empire’s stiff upper lip into a worried quiver. “Let the world know I was a revolutionary,” he says in the face of imminent execution. In a world that’s now twisted into a grotesque abstract that defines love for one’s country using the uneasy palette of exclusionism and isolationism, where does someone like Udham Singh fit in the canvas? Someone who could silo the evil that the East Indian trading company morphed into and the people who belonged to that country into separate entities. Who could nod his head in appreciation for an official who was carrying out their duties in their own country versus the simmering rage he reared for those who carried out their work of devastation and divide-and-rule in other lands, under the pretext of taming the native savages. The human and moral brush that draws that line is an instrument that’s in worryingly short supply in our times. 

It is this brush that director Shoojit Sircar (Vicky DonorPinkPikuGulabo Sitabo) writers Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah (also cameoing as Koppikar, a London underground contact) use to create a riveting and stunning composite of Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal) agglomerating, in parts available material on his life, filling up the gaps with shades of dramatic, creative license. None of it, however, is forced or high-treble nonsense. Sardar Udham isn’t designed to rip off water pumps or get your chest pumping to an inexplicable vest size. Flipping the cause-and-effect theorem to effect-and-cause, director Sircar dispenses, in half-hour of the movie’s opening, with Udham assassinating the Lieutenant Governor-General of British India Punjab Michael O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott), under whose watch (and post-event explicit approval) General Reginald Dyer (Andrew Havill) carried out the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919. The rest of the movie traces, in seemingly random chronology, Udham’s journey to culminate in his gunning down O’Dwyer. But this tracking of the elusive and enigmatic persona is shorn of hagiography or halo-effects. 

Vicky Kaushal: life outside the cinema hall.

Instead, this 164-minute run-time movie wastes no scene, wrapping its subject in the envelope of a well-kept secret, opening just enough to offer a peek into his machinations via Scotland Detective Inspector John Swain (Stephen Hogan), retaining the mystique of the reticent, laddoo-loving revolutionary whose trajectory is linked, via rear-view looks to that of Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) member and kindred rebel Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar in an effective cameo). Across countries and timelines, Udham bides his time. He could be The Revenant of his times in snow-packed Russian plains, a sly spy-like figure in London who keeps his would-be target in his cross-hairs, not killing him even when offered multiple chances on a silver tray of fate, for he wants to register it not as an everyday homicide but once-in-a-lifetime protest. 

One of the threads that director Sircar weaves is an unsaid, unrequited love story between Udham and Reshma (Banita Sandhu), whose lighting up of her amour’s face with a lantern is a glowing beauty that cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay also uses to bask his subject in a cell scene and also while depicting London’s underground movement in hushed apartment settings. Elsewhere, the scenes are tinged with hues of history and fairy-tale-like strokes, almost indicative of the true story laced with stoked imagination. 

Amol Parashar: the right to rebel.

Underneath the movie’s quiet thrum is the dialogue that’s increasingly relevant in our polarised times: what’s a revolution without solid ideology? What’s a revolution if it’s not inclusive? What’s a rebellion if it’s not to get equal footing in one’s own land? What’s a march for equality but a luxury of the people whose rulers quash the very oxygen of freedom that sustains life and societies? What’s the gathering of freedom of thought if it’s covered by the cloud of Section 144? Sardar Udham provokes answers from you, forcing you to chew on the questions via the fodder it provides using other characters such as the sympathetic Eileen (Kirsty Averton). She understands, supports, and eventually gives in to the inevitable. Dwyer and Dyer provide vorpal flesh and blood evidence to Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, while Detective John Swain pivots to an eventual begrudging appraisal of Udham Singh’s dry powder power. The movie also works because it uses, without resorting to caricatures, its British characters’ narratives to question their intent. 

With a mournful, affecting score by Shantanu Moitra (and profoundly moving violin solos by Ambi Subramaniam), the movie’s uplifted by writer Ritesh Shah’s grounded, jingoistic-free dialogues who writes of the singeing pain that an incident like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre inflicts on survivors. Director Sircar ends his narrative with a harrowing 30-minute sequence that begins with the firing at everyday men, women, and children who gather for a round of peaceful protests. The director doesn’t let up, tying you to the walls of the park, beginning in daylight, exploding human flesh and spilling blood as bodies pile up, and then lie there, in the dead of night, bereft of life or struggling to breathe through exit wounds, gasping for fading life; the darkness before their eyes matching the circadian rhythm of a sleep that threatens to loom forever, separating mothers from children, wives from husbands, grandparents from grandchildren, hope from the future, and life from existence. 

Sardar Udham is Vicky Kaushal’s finest yet.

Amidst this horror, you realize, is actor Vicky Kaushal’s metamorphosis into a higher-caliber actor. From his Deepak Chaudhary in Masaan, who rails against the pyre as a bread-earner, to Udham Singh, who’s thrown into the flames of immeasurable horror, his act moves from the raw and likable to the understated and disturbed—the only time he allows his Udham a smile is after he’s accomplished his mission. The actor etches his indelible insignia on the portrait that director Sircar creates. 

But it’s only towards the end that you finally understand what drove their subject to such a manic focus of well-aimed shots to register their protest. That to forge a patriot involves not the fires of boisterous claims and platitudes that spew divisive nationalism. It requires the carting of unimaginable moral and mortal weight across a burning furnace. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Sardar Udham is streaming Prime and rated  U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for violent scenes.

Sardar Udham
Director Shoojit Sircar Time 2h 44min
Writers Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Ritesh Shah
Stars Vicky Kaushal, Stephen Hogan, Shaun Scott, Banita Sandhu
Genres Biography, Crime, Drama, History