Story: The film pays tribute to an unsung hero — Sardar Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal), an Indian revolutionary, who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in London (in 1940), to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (of 1919). The former British colonial official was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab (British India) at the time. Dwyer had said the killing of hundreds of protesters during a demonstration at Jallianwala Bagh in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, was justified.
Review: First things first — If you are looking for a talky film that can light the revolutionary fire in you, ‘Sardar Udham’ isn’t it. Do not expect hard-hitting dialoguebaazi or emotional outbursts. The pre-independence drama based on true events, is a simmering observation of a man consumed by grief. The protagonist makes numbing pain his strength and silence, his voice. Loss and despair are so overpowering that avenging the barbaric crime he witnessed in his 20’s, becomes the only reason for his existence, even 20 years later.
Set at the onset of World War II, the film shuttles between past and present. The canvas is massive but meaty source material on the titular character, meagre. None of Udham’s chest-thumping slogans or writings (if any) was found. Here was a man, deeply scarred, who went about doing his job quietly. The challenge was to then connect the dots with whatever little information available and get into his psyche. Shoojit tries to decode the ‘why’ and not just how he ended up doing what he did. The aim is to understand the emotional arc of an innocent boy from Amristar who wouldn’t hold a gun, let alone firing one. What led him to fire at Dwyer from point-blank range and not flee the spot? Was it driven by revenge? Why harbour the pain for two decades and not move on for good? Why is the same person a revolutionary and terrorist for different people?
Shoojit (Piku, Vicky Donor) doesn’t take a myopic look at heroism or freedom. His hero doesn’t seem invincible or hero-like. Udham didn’t hate a man or his country who spurred the massacre. His fight was against the British ideology of conquering others’ right to speak and live freely. Through an exhausting runtime of 2 hours, 40 minutes, Shoojit makes us meet Udham, a stoical man on a mission. He moves like a shadow, relentless in his pursuit of Dwyer and freedom from the oppressive British rule. For the longest time, we solely become a spectator of his painstaking journey. We don’t feel invested enough. We see him landing odd jobs in London and being the centre of various unremarkable events leading up to the assassination.
As much as we anticipate the volcano of his past to erupt eventually, the road to that heart-wrenching climax is tedious. Underplaying is an effective tool as long as it doesn’t underwhelm. This film is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode but beware; the wait tries your patience. The intention is to give a lull before the storm treatment to storytelling. Silence is amplified so when Udham’s inner turmoil finds an outlet, the impact reaches a crescendo. It’s cleverly thought out but the execution yields mixed results. The non-linear, non-verbose narrative struggles to hold your attention even an hour into the movie. The re-enactment of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is unsettling to watch and that is the very reason why this story needed to be told.
Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham dips his toes into uncharted waters. He tries his best to get unspoken words across but a film like this needed an Irrfan to speak through his eyes. You can trust a seasoned actor to elevate portions that demand stillness. Vicky is remarkable in certain scenes though. A drunk scene in particular, his 20 something portrayal and his climactic conversation with a British investigator extract the best out of him as an actor. Him wondering, “Mere jawani ka koi matlab bana?” is heart-breaking. The writing tries to avoid clichés but ends up sounding contemporary instead. Bhagat Singh’s Hinglish dialogues like, “Hum sirf exploitation ke against hai. Humein semi-independence nahi chahiye,” sound out of place given the setting. The line that stays with you is Udham reminiscing his turbulent past and asking a British officer, “What were you doing when you were 23?”
Sardar Udham’s courage never roared. It whispered. This freedom fighter traversed continents, used aliases and lied low throughout his life. He was too possessed by his singular quest for equality to make a noise. If you are as passionately curious about his quiet existence, this film is for you.