Vicky Kaushal, Shoojit Sircar on bringing alive the 'rich, eclectic, and intellectually restless life' of Sardar Udham Singh

'At such a young age, these boys had a great understanding of what our rights should be, what our freedoms should be. They were thinking deeply about service to humanity, and that’s what attracted me to this story,' says Shoojit Sircar, director of Sardar Udham

Aditya Mani Jha October 13, 2021 11:53:39 IST
Vicky Kaushal, Shoojit Sircar on bringing alive the 'rich, eclectic, and intellectually restless life' of Sardar Udham Singh

On 13 March, 1940, Michael O’Dwyer was scheduled to deliver a talk at Caxton Hall, London. O’Dwyer had been the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab between 1913 and 1919; it was under his watch that the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre had happened. That day at Caxton Hall, O’Dwyer was assassinated by Udham Singh (1899-1940), as revenge for his role in the killings at Jallianwala Bagh.

Singh famously concealed his gun inside a book whose pages were cut in the shape of a revolver. And while this daring feat has rightly earned Singh a place in Indian history books, the man led a rich, eclectic, and intellectually restless life before that day at Caxton Hall.

Director Shoojit Sircar’s latest film Sardar Uddham, starring Vicky Kaushal, is an attempt to understand everything that went into the making of its subject’s most famous hour. At a promotional event in New Delhi ahead of the release, Sardar Udham director and lead actor opened up about what it took to tell this story.

“I had been an ardent follower of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, and then I followed Sardar Udham Singh also,” Sircar said. “For me, the kind of conversations they wanted to have with people, it hasn’t directly reached the people yet. Their story has kind of stopped at the jingoistic ‘superhero freedom fighter’ stage.

At such a young age, these boys had a great understanding of what our rights should be, what our freedoms should be. They were thinking deeply about service to humanity, and that’s what attracted me to this story.”

Sircar also spoke about putting the visual elements in Udham Singh’s appearance together, a sometimes challenging task owing to the fact that there was very little by way of reference material. “There are not many photographs of him. There are five or six in total,” Sircar said. “There’s one important one outside Caxton Hall, there’s a passport picture, and there’s one where he’s working as a background artiste in a British film.” In other onscreen stories about Indian revolutionaries, there are certain sharply defined visual elements that have become inextricable from the subjects; Bhagat Singh’s top-hat-and-cane ensemble (while he was in disguise to slip past a British check-post), for example.
Vicky Kaushal Shoojit Sircar on bringing alive the rich eclectic and intellectually restless life of Sardar Udham Singh

In that vein, Kaushal added, “In one of them he’s (Udham Singh) wearing a hat, in another, he’s wearing a turban. There’s a time in his life when he’s clean-shaven, another when he’s being a Sardar with the beard and the turban, so we’ve tried to capture all of that. Plus, I’m playing him through ages 20 to 40, so we had to tailor each look accordingly. I had to lose a lot of weight and then gain it all back.”

The actor, who is Punjabi himself, felt that adapting to a more classical or ‘theth’ form of the language (reflective of the early 20th century) was not a big challenge for him (“it was home ground”). What proved trickier was depicting Udham Singh’s improving grasp on the English language through his years in London. Kaushal said: “When a theth-Punjabi speaking man has just entered London, you’d expect his English to be a little patchy, he’s kind of joining words from different languages together. But then, as he spends some years in the city, you see the rhythm and the flow improving.” However, he was quick to add: “This is not a verbose film in general, it’s not like everything has to be about the words, and the kind of Punjabi being used. The flow has to be natural, and that’s what we’ve tried to capture here.”

Kaushal, who played a Para Special Forces Major in the 2019 blockbuster Uri: The Surgical Strike, will soon be seen as Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in a biopic directed by Meghna Gulzar. Alongside Udham Singh, that is three films with patriotic/nationalist themes for Kaushal, in a relatively small time frame. Is he at all worried about being typecast? “I don’t think about that," Kaushal said. “It’s a parked thought, in the background somewhere. See, before being an actor, I consider myself as an audience member. I want to see good cinema. I want to see the kind of cinema that I can take home with me.”

Bollywood biopics have been enjoying a moment of late. It remains to be seen whether Sardar Udham gets the thumbs up so to speak, but the director and leading man are cautiously optimistic. “If I’m reading a script for the first time, and if it really does affect my heart, I take the plunge,” Kaushal said. “Hopefully, the audience will also enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed living it.”

Sardar Udham will premiere on Amazon Prime Video India on 16 October.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels

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