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  • Writer's pictureAmruta

Hot take: Sardar Udham

'Sardar Udham' (2021) is a befuddling film. It sets up grand expectations with stunning production design, a stellar leading performance by Vicky Kaushal, and some lovely period world-building, only to squander all this scope and scale to mediocre writing, shoddy editing, mixed, insincere messaging and contrived pathos. The result is utterly disappointing and not a little frustrating, especially coming from the likes of Shoojit Sircar (acclaimed director of 'Madras Cafe', 'Piku' 'Vicky Donor' and the fabulously nuanced 'Yahaan') and given the fact that the story of the Jallianwallah Baug massacre is already so tragic and horrific, it sorely deserved a better telling.

The writing is the biggest culprit. While the reverse narration of the story, starting from his arrest and moving back to the trigger, is a refreshing and promising take, it is undermined by a jumpy screenplay that flits back and forth between time zones without leaving the viewer any the wiser as to Udham Singh's real motivations. Part of this is due to writers Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya's unusual choice of telling the story through what Udham himself reveals to the officers investigating his case, which is precious little, given that he is trying to protect other members of his organisation from being caught. I suppose the attempt was to go for a minimalistic approach, but the upshot is that the film never lets us in to what drove the man to do what he did. We are given lovely, impressionistic shots of Udham's freezing travels through Russia, his budding romance with a young, mute village girl (a radiant Banita Sandhu), and even some scenes of his meetings with Bhagat Singh and the HSRA, but the film leaves glaring gaps and inconsistencies that beg further elaboration.

For instance, when Udham arrives in England, and throughout his time there, he speaks broken English. At the same time, he tells a potential employer that he is educated (while all of his associates speak perfectly good English). We are asked to sympathize with him as an orphan hailing from a rural village, but told little about his education or how he came to meet Bhagat Singh and fall in with the HSRA. The film grandly sets him up as a revolutionary martyr and an intrepid spy who even spoke Russian, even while underlining the predominantly personal nature of his revenge. The last scene where Udham tells Swain about what he saw the night of the massacre attempts to tie it all together by explaining how the personal became political, but after more than two and a half hours of runtime where we learn nothing except that Sir O'Dwyer was a genuinely unrepenting man, this seems more than a little contrived. Then there is the pace, which weighs down the proceedings greatly. In a film with such a threadbare plot, the fact that everything seems to move creakily only heightens the impatience of the viewer. Again, I think the attempt was to go for a slow-burn, and given that this is a tale of revenge, that would have been a fair enough choice if the telling had been linear. Instead, as the screenplay goes back and forth, we lose both track and interest. In interviews, the director and writers have been asked about the lack of documentation on Udham's life. Unfortunately, they seem to have taken this absence of material to mean a license to take the most creative liberties, a lot of which feels inorganic and downright unbelievable. Udham Singh, in this telling, has many a chance and deliberate encounter with O'Dwyer, and many opportunities to pull the trigger, but doesn't do so until a more public gathering allows his personal act of revenge to be registered as a political protest. Many side characters (including the investigating officer) keep underlining how Udham had "never killed another human" before he pulled the trigger on the former lieutenant governor, a strangely expository approach that feels tacked on even if true. In a key scene, Bhagat Singh gives another oddly expository speech on the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary, making it a point to explain that a true protest can never be armed or violent. Yet,as viewers we all know that both Bhagat and Udham Singh were hanged to death for murder, and even if their motives can be justified by the sheer violence of the atrocities they were subjected to and the desperation they felt, this juxtaposition deliberately undercuts the ideological purity and nobility of Bhagat's speech. Another big problem with the story is the gratuitous and long-drawn focus on the violent acts in the film. There are multiple close-ups of Udham being tortured in prison, being force-fed even as his whole body violently fights back his oppressors, and even an unnecessarily close take of his hanging. The last forty minutes of the film are excruciatingly long, with the same snail-like pace and almost sado-masochistic focus on open wounds, dying people and rivers of blood. The Jallianwalla Baug massacre was so horrific, that even a long take of the firing, followed by a couple of scenes showcasing Udham's bewilderment as he desperately tries to save people and some judicious, haunting takes of the dogs feeding on corpes and vultures circling overhead would have been enough to convey the horror Udham Singh felt at the complete inhumanity of it all. Instead, producer Ronnie Lahiri and editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati drag it out so much that while the attempt is to adequately convey emotional discomfort, the viewer reaches a point of total numbness. Also, the director's choice to show Udham coming back to first find an old man, then a pregnant woman, then two young dead young girls holding hands is so manipulative that the pathos barely registers. Again, the story of the massacre is so horrific in itself, it barely needs any amping up for the tragedy to hit home. Yet, the director hammers the point in so literally that we cannot but feel like we are being conned into pity. Lastly, and this is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film, is that it seems both hyper-aware of yet totally oblivious to the time of its release. For a political story, there is a curious lack of political engagement or socio-historical contextualisation of the proceedings. We are told the HSRA had ties with communist outfits in Russia and the IRA, which is a fascinating insight that begs intrigue, but the director and writers do not care to elaborate further. Udham Singh's more revolutionary associates playfully tease him as being a 'sensitive socialist' who reads romances like Heer-Ranjha, but we are not told anything more about the differences between the two. We know that Udham Singh looked up to Bhagat Singh, and see him listen to the latter's sermons about revolutionaries, yet learn nothing more about their association. Udham gets into a brawl with his boss at a factory and spouts a curiously Marxist speech, but again, we do not know what he truly believed. The film establishes deliberate parallels between the peaceful protests of Jallianwalla Baug and the anti-CAA and farmers' protests of today, but seems at the same time to justify the inevitable picking up of arms by all revolutionary movements. A scene where Udham tells Swain that he "doesn't hate all Britishers" seems only there to soften the all-out jingoism of the film, but the insistent sympathy-seeking for the main character make this statement ring untrue. It seems as if the film, while trying to humanise Udham, is trying to deliberately walk a tight-rope where it plays to both the political polarities currently inhabiting today's India. The result is a frustratingly inauthentic telling with mixed to non-existent messaging. At one point in the film, O'Dwyer gives an odious speech where he justifies British imperial presence in India by saying that "if we aren't there, the country will fall prey to savagery and in-fighting between various groups." The film, by refusing to see the irony in the sad truth of this statement or acknowledge the jingoism that currently pervades Indian political discourse while simultaneously succumbing to it, does a great disservice to the true idea of revolution that infuses both past and present movements of freedom from oppression of all kinds. For a more nuanced, less self-important and more humbly self-aware patriotic story of courage in the face of terror, I recommend you watch 'Mumbai 26/11' (also on Amazon Prime) and give this one a straight miss.

Genre: Biopic, Drama

Language: Hindi/English Runtime: 2h 43min Year of release: 2021 Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime Video

Hot take is a series in which I offer my first impressions of films from India and around the world.


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