Readers Write In #420: On Sardar Udham Singh; and Sircar’s vicious tricks with his audience…

Posted on November 1, 2021


(by An Jo)

The initial texts that precede the start of this movie are in themselves a revelation as to what, and especially how, Sircar is willing and taunting the audience to rise up to the challenge of an uneven movie: History is dirty and muddled up isn’t it? Why would I make a ‘clean’ movie out of it? The ‘cleaner’ text, he reveals as a matter-of-fact; now the dirtier truths, he just drops it almost as a disclaimer. 

I cannot write much about the character as such; it is for all to see and study and readily available. This is a sojourn on Sardar Udham Singh’s wait, remember, his wait, to kill the person physically that killed his soul. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre is recounted here through the journey of one man; Udham Singh, a friend, a freedom-fighter who Bhagat was sure could take over the revolution with the group named HSRA. Gandhi was to be deported to Burma, but the Brits realized arresting Gandhi could further provoke the Indians. Instead, they arrested Satyapal, and on April 13, 1919, on the eve of Baisakhi, Hindus, Mussalmans, Christians, and any religion alive on the face of this earth – which was possible at that time and which still is the case – gathered to protest against Satyapal’s arrest and the Rowlatt Act. The Brits, then started firing without any provocation against the Indians gathered and they didn’t stop, mind you, till the last person dropped dead; but only, and only because, they ran out of ammunition. A mind-numbing attitude like this, which the white population of those times, generally passed off as ‘teaching civilization to the Indians who eat with their hands.’ [Same is the case with the USA, and how the ‘savagery’ of the Native Indians was treated.]

When you watch the movie, it is important to understand that Sircar takes you on a journey not per your pleasure, sitting on your armrest and watching a movie on a Friday, but through the perilous years of Udham Singh sitting on, working on the idea of killing O’Dwyer, the architect of the massacre, and Reginald Dyer, the executioner la ‘The Butcher of Amritsar; [How’s that for an alias?].

As a viewer, one might get frustrated at the idea of watching the screenplay fold out, across multiple timelines, as to what is actually the aim of this movie. But there’s a scene at the end, when Udham’s lawyer asks him: ‘You are not a killer; what changed?’ And then we are able to understand and change the viewing perspective and get yanked into Udham Singh’s mind, and we realize why Sircar took the route he took to film this movie in this particular way. The way Sircar and his team spends time on Udham cutting up a book’s pages and planting  a gun to be taken to Caxton Hall to shoot O’Dwyer, you realize it is something different. There have been many, many films that have captured the same shot, but the emotional heft and weight that Sircar throws in here, is something else. 

Sircar cuts through Udham’s journeys, from Rawalpindi to Afghanistan to the USSR to London. Finally he lands up in London off-boarding from a ship titled ‘Carolina.’ The audience might ask, oh was it so easy? Is it that easy? He just lands up in London. No! Udham works through different aliases; and Sircar captures beautifully the landscape of the 1930s London, the women working through those difficult telegrams; the typewriters clanking on and on about a passport being issued to an ‘alias.’ It is fantastic research the team has done and the attention to details is superb. [Everything might be in black and white; but the phone booth, that phone booth, stands red in stark contrast; almost symbolizing the revolution/blood-bath; that is a constant reminder to the audience; remember this happened in 1919, and this is close of the ‘30s, but I haven’t forgotten.]

It is that hard-hitting scene, the one where Udham stands up in a park in front of an old English gentleman— I have no English enemies, he says later; most of my friends are living here in England—where he utters this beautiful thought: पत्ता बूटा हाल हमारा जाने; गुल ही ना जाने; बाग तो सारा जाने|

Then Sircar gets to the brass-tacks; and viscerally, quite viscerally he pulls you into that horrendous day of the massacre. In a contrast to what Attenborough glossed over in the movie Gandhi, where Gandhi and Nehru just look down into the well; Sircar cruelly yanks the dead bodies out of that well, and stirs his camera around the remaining dead; and some, pretending to be dead: from a 9-year old to a 90-year old. He spends the last 40-50 minutes of the movie just displaying Udham having to take on the painful act of fetching bodies to doctors on his back, or through wheel-carts. [I don’t have enough morphine; tells the Doctor- and Vicky just stares at  him; he understands neither medicine nor morphine; in an earlier scene, when Bhagat and Udham are riding a bicycle, here goes the talk; Indians have become complacent; they think the Brits are doing it for Indian, you know, railways, cinema halls, stuff; they don’t understand how ‘capitalism’ works. The Brits are doing it for themselves, not for us.] Nothing is catered to here; everything is through Udham’s eyes. And Vicky does a terrific job here of displaying that helplessness. It is a mentally harrowing experience watching the last 45 minutes; but Vicky, right from the time Sircar made up his mind of numbing the audience, is with him. A great teamwork.

At the end, it is almost like Sircar is taunting us; hey, I carried the albatross for 21 years to assassinate not a guy, but a wicked idea of British Imperialism, you cannot stand 2 hours 45 minutes of a movie on me?