Cast: Vicky Kaushal, Amol Parashar, Shaun Scott, Stephen Hogan, Banita Sandhu, Kirsty Averton
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The scale of the meticulously structured period narrative is grand but Sardar Udham, helmed by Shoojit Sircar, shuns the trappings of a Bollywood biopic. But that certainly isn't the film's sole strength. The brilliantly lensed biopic also draws power from lead actor Vicky Kaushal's intense and intuitive performance Sardar Udham presents a revolutionary hero of India's struggle for freedom as a real, relatable, laddoo-loving young man who just happened to be somebody who saw death from such close quarters, and in such horrific circumstances, that his resolve to avenge the martyrs of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre turned into a self-assigned mission.
Sardar Udham, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, raises the bar for the genre - the word is used for the sake of convenience, not to suggest that there is anything remotely generic in the film - in a way that will be hard for the Mumbai movie industry, which usually purveys pulpy pop history in which actor takes precedence over character, to replicate.
The facts that are laid out on the screen might not be absolutely accurate - a disclaimer at the start of the film admits as much although Sardar Udham is "based on true events" - but details that the two screenwriters Subhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah pack into the busy script are orchestrated to convey a sense of truth.
Despite the fact that it clocks well over two and a half hours and is marked by a back-and-forth-in-time rhythm, Sardar Udham is always gripping and meaningful because it is first and foremost a measured character study and not a mere action-driven saga.
Vicky Kaushal, playing Shaheed Udham Singh, delivers his best performance to date, capturing the acute psychological dynamics of an ideologically driven man not incapable of grasping or expressing softer emotions.
The film's structure - Sardar Udham has a flow that is staccato and yet wonderfully harmonious - is well thought-out and the brutal carnage in the walled city of Amritsar on April 13, 1919 is staged in great detail deep inside the film's final stretch. The soul of the film is best reflected in the restrained, unobtrusive, hugely effective background score by Shantanu Moitra.
With his cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay and the rest of his technical team, Sircar has delivered a Hindi biopic that could be regarded as world class in style and substance. Sardar Udham demonstrates how much more effective a movie could be when it is not a scrappy and bloated vehicle for a self-obsessed A-list star peddling superficial notions of patriotism.
The two bad guys in Sardar Udham are Brigadier General Michael O'Dwyer (Shaun Scott), the lieutenant-governor Punjab from 1912 to 1919, and General Reginald Dyer (Andrew Havill), who ordered the firing that killed 20,000 men, women and children in Jallianwala Bagh. The former, since he is the one in Udham Singh's line of fire, receives much more play than the latter.
In Indian films about the oppressive nature of British rule, the White man is invariably a caricaturized monster. Not here. Sardar Udham allows us a peek into the skewed mind of O'Dwyer and reveals, without any overt dramatic flourish, his firm belief that if the Empire were to leave India to its own devices the nation would slide into chaos and savagery and its people would begin killing one another.
That is one of the last lines the character speaks on the fateful day. O'Dwyer's assassination happens rather early in the film and the rest of Sardar Udham focuses on a dual track narrative that pieces together the arcs of the two men involved in the incident - the assassin and his quarry.
But not all the British characters in Sardar Udham are reprehensible creatures, certainly not Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Swain (Stephen Hogan), who in the process of handling the O'Dwyer assassination case, develops a grudging admiration for the Indian revolutionary and then a full-blown understanding of his motives.
The screenplay makes space for Eileen Palmer (Kirsty Averton), a British Communist Party member who extends a helping hand to Udham Singh as he hides behind several aliases and spends many years biding his time, as also for a deaf-mute girl (Banita Sandhu in a cameo) in a romantic track that does not get in the way of the film's larger purpose.
Udham Singh's mission isn't of the hit-and-run variety; it has a gradual, granular build-up. It is, in a way, a slow, painstaking grind, and the film dedicated to his bravery isn't in a hurry to impose any false momentum upon his story.
Sardar Udham does not take the easy option of mounting a 'celebration' of the protagonist's heroism. It instead examines why he went to the lengths that he did to deliver comeuppance to the man he holds responsible for mowing down thousands of his countrymen. The script provides a personal reason for Udham Singh's single-minded pursuit of O'Dwyer but for that revelation the audience has to wait a couple of hours and a bit.
Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar in a special appearance) is a constant presence in Sardar Udham both as a political thinker who influences the eponymous character (although Udham Singh was several years older than Bhagat Singh) and also simply as a notion, a man so wedded to a cause that he walks to the gallows with a song on his lips. No, there are no songs in Sardar Udham but the hanging of Bhagat Singh at the age of 23 strengthens Udham Singh's doggedness.
He makes a perilous journey to London to execute his plan. He dreams of freedom, inspired doubtless by Bhagat Singh's goal of liberty and equality for all - farmers, workers and students. When the two admirable men discuss the distinction between revolution and terrorism, the thoughts they put on the table resonate loud and clear because individual freedom (yes, of farmers, workers and students) is at as much of a premium today as it was nine decades ago.
Or when Udham says nobody wins in war, only hatred does, and makes an impassioned plea for free speech in an address to an audience of one, an old homeless man sleeping on a park bench, he sounds staggeringly prescient.
In Sardar Udham, Sircar combines a portrait of shocking brutality with a depiction of one man's determination not to back off from his risky stratagem.
There is a phenomenal degree of craft in Sardar Udham but none of it is employed for mere effect. There is great deal of soul, too, in this magnificently crafted film. Every image that the cinematographer creates - be it a misty morning in the Punjab countryside, a snow-covered expanse in the Soviet Union or the dank, dark interiors of a jail or an interrogation room is infused with significance and stunning textural and visual depth.
As far as Bollywood biopics go, Sardar Udham is a cut above. It will always be a hard act to follow.