Sardar Udham Does History Right By Going Beyond Mere Jingoism

·5 min read

We have had many biopics before, several on Bhagat Singh alone, and most of them dealt with his burning desire to free India and finally end up as a martyr for the cause of independence. In these hyper-nationalist times, I had a fear that this film may also end up pandering to the jingoistic times we are living in.

But Shoojit Sircar’s Sardar Udham will disappoint all those who wanted merely a dose of adrenaline and expected the movie to facilitate their politics of misinterpreting our icons. The story is carefully and diligently carved by Ritesh Shah and Subhendu Bhattacharya, going beyond stereotypes that remain confined within a narrow perspective of our anti-colonial struggle. This film is about the ideas and a vision of an India that Udham Singh carried with him all over the world.

A Silent Anger

Sardar Udham is a film that truly transports us to the most gruelling phase of our colonial struggle, which began with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This barbaric episode left an indelible mark on the young Sher Singh’s (this is the name he was born with) mind, which changed him forever from a normal young man to a revolutionary. He was witness to the cold-blooded massacre of helpless men, women and children. The depiction of this anger by Vicky Kaushal is outstanding. He retrieves the injured and carries them to the hospital with a stone-faced expression — an expression that stayed with him for most of his life, even when he worked for Michael O’Dwyer as a house-help in London.

Also Read: Sardar Udham Singh: A Life Devoted to Avenging Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Vicky Kaushal has excelled in his portrayal of an intense character, beginning from the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy to his life in prison in India, and later in England. He probably met Bhagat Singh in prison in Lahore and he remained his idol for the rest of his life.

What Drew Udham to Bhagat Singh?

But Bhagat Singh was not a martyr yet — what inspired Udham Singh to see him as his icon? The film makes it quite explicit that Bhagat Singh’s ideology inspired him. The brief but powerful presence of Bhagat Singh (Amol Parasher) in the film brings that out quite forcefully. We do not find Bhagat Singh referring to Udham in his writings, but their prison meetings were truly intense, as the film shows. Bhagat Singh explains his socialist vision when he says in the film, “A revolutionary has to follow certain principles that are beyond any communal or caste prejudice. There can be no social or economic difference and the only truth is equality.” By this time, Bhagat Singh was a mature political thinker, though he was still in his early twenties.

Also Read: Apart from Punjab, Few People Know of Udham Singh: Shoojit Sircar

A lot more may have transpired between them at an ideological level. Bhagat Singh surely must have explained to Udham his evolution as a young atheist who believed that “the idea of God is helpful to man in distress”. Bhagat Singh also must have shared what he wrote in Why I am an Atheist: “All faiths, religions, creeds and such other institutions became, in turn, the mere supporters of the tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Rebellion against a king is always a sin according to every religion.”

Udham Singh also imbibed the cosmopolitan vision of an anti-imperialist, which Bhagat Singh and his Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) espoused. Udham Singh refers to the HSRA repeatedly in the film while he was being interrogated by detective John Swain with the help of an Indian translator.

There were moments in the film where a normal filmmaker could have indulged in high-quality melodrama, but here, Sircar has used Udham’s silence to convey much more than the usual hyperbole would have ever managed.

Udham Singh remained committed to these early lessons in socialism and internationalism. The film emphasises that by repeatedly focusing on Udham’s contacts with British Communist Party leaders like Eileen Palmer.

Separating Nationalism from Jingoism

The film comes out as an extremely well-produced one cinematically. It has also portrayed the period aptly, particularly the London city and all the cars of the decades from the 1930s and the 1940s, the buildings and the streets.

There were some moments of discomfort when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was stretched beyond 15 minutes. I understand the significance of the tragedy in Udham Singh’s life, but less than 5 minutes would have conveyed the impact equally effectively. However, this is no criticism of the film but my own weakness of not being able to go through the gory details for so long.

Also Read: On Patriotism Vs Jingoism and My Job as a Storyteller

The film by Sircar sends a message to all Indians — that one’s religion does not explain their Indian identity. Udham Singh’s tattoo, “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”, puzzled the British judge, who had to be explained that it symbolised the religious unity and solidarity of India. The film does well in reminding us that the nationalism we inherited from our revolutionary heroes was neither exclusive nor xenophobic. Our apt tribute to these revolutionaries would be to keep that India alive, an India they envisioned to see.

(S Irfan Habib is a historian of science and modern political history. Till recently, he was Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi. He tweets @irfhabib. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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