Shoojit Sircar delves deep to explain how Sardar Udham serves as an ode to revolutionaries, immortalises Indian struggle for equality
In an exclusive interview, director Shoojit Sircar decodes how Sardar Udham passes the test of time with flying colours in the 21st century
You know that moment when a movie weaves history into the matrix, holds the fabric of time still in frames for you to feel its folds and know its secrets while adding a dash of deserved immortality to your past - that’s when you know that artistic expression has peaked.
No sensationalism and hard cold facts make Shoojit Sircar’s movie Sardar Udham long, as many have cribbed. But can you really compromise on the duration of a movie at the cost of historical accuracy?
The intricately detailed character of Sher Singh aka Udham Singh was only a means to an end to portray a loftier message that transcends the single act that he is largely remembered for. Sardar Udham’s main hero, that many seem to have failed to put a finger on, was actually the anti-colonial sentiment.
The ravages of time and intervening generations may have diluted the memories of the shackles of colonialism that our forefathers fought to shed at the cost of their lives, but a timely reminder of our heritage should be an eye-opener as to what we should be grateful for. It should also instigate us enough to search for or establish our identities in accordance to our native heritage — a heritage that is ripe with acts of bravado, resilience, determination, and selflessness in a sea of suffering intensified by the delegitimization of our cause and free will. The Indian Freedom Struggle, as we reminisce today, revolved around reclaiming our right to freedom, and removing the ‘second-class citizen’ tag bestowed upon us by the British on our own soil.
“চিত্ত যেথা ভয়শূন্য, উচ্চ যেথা শির” (Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high) is a line from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, that comes closest to describing the inner recesses of Udham Singh’s mind throughout the movie.
In an effort to pull up the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre from the clutches of being "just a footnote in (British) history," Sardar Udham may not have made it to the Oscars but it certainly left an indelible imprint on our psyche.
In conversation with Shoojit Sircar, Firstpost's Nandini Paul decodes why the movie Sardar Udham passes the test of time with flying colours in the 21st century.
What inspired you to make the movie?
I spent a substantial amount of time in Delhi when I was studying theatre there. So in the 1980-90s, I went to Amritsar. I did street plays in Amritsar too. It was then that I visited the Golden Temple and ultimately the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, and I guess that visit is the reason why this movie was made today.
I walked through the place, through the alley, exactly as I have replicated in my movie. The first scene, when the camera enters the site, you can see that it’s an enveloped piece of land with no escape. I was left feeling numb to the core as I came to terms with the horror that must have taken place there.
I remember touching the walls, feeling the bullet dents on them, and it left me with the feeling of being inside a man-made trap that was specifically created to thwart the spirit of a united front which knew what it wanted. That left a deep impact upon me, and then I started pouring into the books, hitting libraries, and digging as deep as I could.
But what completely changed my perspective was meeting the son of one of the survivors. In the movie, if you’ve noticed, there was a pregnant woman looking for her husband after the massacre. The person I interacted with was her son. I met him in the '90s, and he narrated to me his mother’s experience. Two other witness accounts, of Rattan Devi and Attar Kaur, who went to the Bagh late into the night after the massacre formed the basis of my portrayal of the scenes. Their accounts have been recorded by the Hunter Commission, the British government, and the Congress Committee.
I would not have been able to do justice to the movie without portraying the massacre in details. It was more important to me as a human than a director in this context.
My aim was for the viewers to experience what the people of Amritsar endured, felt, lived with or died with, and had to ultimately accept as fate that night and by extension, what Udham must’ve experienced.
The first time I got to understand the gravity of the event was after visiting the scene of the massacre. My entire life changed, the way I viewed things changed. I try to stay true to my life’s story and journey through my movies. Even Piku was the same. It was, to an extent, based off of my personal journey in life. Cinema is a piece of art/expression which needs to be compelled by something which comes from deep inside you; otherwise it is not art, it is something else.
What were the main points that you wanted to reflect on?
I had two points which I was quite adamant about putting forward with Sardar Udham.
1. The concept of a revolutionary being diluted (in populist folklore).
2. Heroism is not shouting, bombastic moves, but about doing something that is right.
A movie can only steer someone’s conscience, inform them better.
I tried to portray the true sense of a revolutionary. Revolution is a common man’s job. It should not be sensationalised. Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh’s fight back then was first and foremost for equality and only then was it about freedom. It was also about justice. Bhagat Singh and his followers did not only want equality for themselves or their motherland, they wanted it for everyone, as was evident in the letter before he was hanged.
The essence of the film in itself is lost when we steer the conversation away from the discussion of inequality.
Why did you choose a non-linear storyline for Sardar Udham?
Inequality, distance, social and economic differences are rampant in our society. As a society, we are fragmented, and that is what I tried to portray through the non-linear storyline as well.
The ethos of the movie was to portray the fight/zeal/need for equality. I think society is much more fragmented now, even though our standard of living is better. You shouldn’t be biased, casteist in any way but then again that’s an ideal world.
Bhagat Singh can also go to a ball, watch a Charlie Chaplin film, and drink wine. At the end of the day, they were normal people like you or I. He was a young boy growing in captivity; what else could you expect from him? Of course, Bhagat Singh was well-read, but didn’t he have the right to be as romantic as anyone else in this era?
My point is you can be normal and still question. Bhagat Singh constantly questioned, and Udham Singh followed suit.
Bhagat Singh’s death shattered Udham Singh. After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Bhagat Singh was kind of a beacon, a ray of hope for Udham. Thus, he went abroad and tried to regroup for a cause that he knew to be true in his heart.
Why do you think the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was a crucial turning point in our freedom struggle?
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre is a chapter in our history that served as a fulcrum of the pre-Independence movement. The movement took a huge turn from there, followed by Udham Singh shooting Michael O’Dwyer, the Quit India Movement, and so on and so forth. That incident kind of served as an inspiration to people to fight for what was rightfully theirs — their freedom. From that incident onwards, many revolutionaries around the country dared to raise their heads. They now had a solid common cause — to end British Imperialism in India. On one side, the Allied Forces were pounding the Nazis with bombs and we praise their bravado but sadly, the Allied Forces were as barbaric to the third world as they were to the Nazis.
Why is it important to be well-informed about the past?
My friend Ronnie Lahiri says, just before you enter Auschwitz, a board says, “If you don’t know your past, you are condemned to repeat it again.”
I wanted to pierce the garb of lack of knowledge on the subject, alleviate complacency to a certain extent, and just inform people about their own past.
“Yaha jitne Indians hain wo sab apne drawing rooms mein comfortable hoke baithe hain... kaise jagaoge unhe?” (The Indians here are sitting comfortably in their drawing rooms. How will you shake them out of their complacencies?) The dialogue portrays what the lack of knowledge, obvious denial, and complacency could manifest as.
A lot of people told me we have forgotten these heroes but I disagree. I didn’t forget, I remembered him. I am nobody special. Just that I remember.
How did the British perceive the movie?
When I was shooting certain scenes with British actors, they themselves were shocked. They might have had prior knowledge of the incident but not in such details. They were angry about their past, and said that they were absolutely honoured to be part of the film. The same actors, casting director — everyone shared the movie extensively on social media as they themselves were agitated about their past.
The film was being screened in England in front of a mixed crowd of Indians and the British, and by the time the movie ended, one of the British spectators immediately said to an Indian, “Do not perceive us to be like this. We are not like this.” They felt really conscious and humiliated. That in itself gave me the courage and the motivation to go forth with Sardar Udham as is. I wanted to put all the facts out there without holding back.
What is your take on the colonial hangover that many Indians still suffer from?
A lot of people in India still do suffer from a colonial hangover. People right now are questioning Winston Churchill too. That brings me back to the importance of questioning events, and deeds and not really pointing fingers at others.
It’s up to the people to ascertain whether he (Udham Singh) is a rebel or a revolutionary. I will leave it up to the people to decide. My main aim was that it should open up a discussion so that people can dig deep into their own history.
What do you think was Udham Singh’s real trigger for killing O’Dwyer?
Killing Michael O’Dwyer must’ve been a last possible resort for Udham Singh.
After the Jallianwala Bagh incident, his soul was lost. He too died in a way that night, I think.
I don’t think it is possible for someone to be completely normal after experiencing something like that at such a young age. Udham somehow wanted to make himself, and on that note, Indians, heard. He was not against the British people but was against British imperialism. The British administration at that time wanted to suppress this incident by reducing it to a “criminal act” or “an act of terrorism,” which was not really the case. He himself wanted it to be repeatedly known as an act of patriotism.
And I think that reflects in his dialogues:
1. “Freedom is my birthright, and fighting for freedom is no crime.”
2. “I fight for the freedom of my people... you equal, you march for being equal. I no equal. I no free. First my country free, then equal, then march, (for) equality,” he tells Eileen Palmer.
3. “Mere bahut se British dost bhi hain. I don't hate (Britishers)... Michael O'Dwyer India mein British Imperialistic system ke evil ko represent karta tha. Main uske khilaaf hun.” (I have a lot of British friends. Michael O'Dwyer represented the evil of British Imperialistic system in India. I'm against that.)
There were two very different standards when approaching violence. State perpetrated violence was legitimate but Udham Singh’s was not, which glaringly exposes the double standards exercised by the British back then.
The entire justification of these revolutionaries would have gotten lost had I mellowed it down. I would have not been true to myself or my art if I could not uphold my end of the bargain to portray their story, which is consequently our history.
Did Amritsar too die that night along with her martyrs?
After the massacre, the British thought there would be another uprising. But nothing happened in Amritsar after that because they had broken the people, their spirit. Large protests did occur outside Amritsar. Gujranwala was bombed; Lahore faced similar shootouts. No one has any clue as to how many such incidents happened or how many people died. Bodies lay at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre site for seven to 10 days because no one wanted to be associated with the protesters amid Martial Law and Section 144 in vogue.
There were heavy crackdowns on such people. A stench of dead bodies filled the streets. Many were prosecuted, even those who never even joined the protest that day. Amritsar, even during the Partition, faced brutal turmoil. The aftershocks still reverberate in the streets of Amritsar. Amritsar never survived after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
What, apart from resources, did the British thrive on while in India?
Michael O’Dwyer says one very ironic thing in the movie, while conversing with Udham, “That’s the trait I have always admired in the Indians. Willingness to please.” He, and by extension, the British government, believed that if they did not govern Indians, they would turn to savagery and chaos like the Africans. He substantiates colonialism further by saying, “Common people, the ‘peasants’ liked us. Students, educated people, communists incited the common people.” The first world had no clue what they were doing here. They were here for the resources. The so-called development in terms of infrastructure, railways — everything was at the behest of Indian resources. Rabindranath Tagore surrendering his knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre also sent a loud message to the British.
How do you think Sardar Udham is relevant today?
The movie has not got any direct relevance today in terms of the brutality exercised back then. The imperialist/colonial mindset, however, has taken a new shape now. Imperialistic, capitalistic revolution is still going on around the world, and exploitation is still very much in vogue. Misinformation is our present enemy rather than anything else. The line between information, misinformation, and knowledge runs very thin. All we can do is take a left out of our own history and learn from it.
Sardar Udham is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
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