Bollywood has given patriotism a bad name among serious cinephiles. For decades now, love for India has too often been translated by Hindi filmmakers into loudness, cringe-worthy clichÃ©s and sometimes even hate-mongering, rivalling the worst that flag-waving, chest-thumping Hollywood offers. Desh prem as defined by Manoj Kumar required the taming of a trite 'Westernised' desi woman. Sunny Deol's brand of devotion to the nation was exemplified by the hero of Gadar uprooting a hand pump from the ground and vanquishing a Pakistani mob. More recently, Bollywood deshbhakti has included a 360-degree rewriting of history and the demonisation of the subcontinent's own Muslims, a shining example being the blatant falsifications in the Akshay Kumar starrer Kesari.
Yet, in the same era as Akshay, has come a small crop of films that show us it is possible to portray war and commitment to the country on screen without lying, destroying viewers' ear drums or inciting hatred for the "dushman", whether perceived or real. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl in its entirety and the battlefield scenes in this summer's Shershaah are fine samples of such cinema. They are now joined by Shoojit Sircar's Sardar Udham, which is like nothing we have seen before.
This Hindi-English film by the director of Vicky Donor, Piku and October tells the story of how the Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal) assassinated Michael O'Dwyer (Shaun Scott), the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, in 1940 to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 13 April, 1919. Reginald Dyer (Andrew Havill) was the officer who ordered his men to fire at a peaceful gathering of thousands of unarmed Indians that day, and in the Indian public consciousness, he is the face of that especially brutal episode in Britain's brutal colonial past. But O'Dwyer is the one who ordered Dyer to quell all rebellion in areas under his command.
In Sardar Udham, O'Dwyer is shown conveying this cold-hearted intent to Dyer: "I want to set a precedent. Punishment of itself is not necessarily a deterrent. But if the punishment is such that it creates a fear of punishment, that would be of great practical value. We need to set an example." " words that have a disturbing resonance in India's present-day circumstances, no different from when he orders the preventive arrests of all students and for all civilian telephone lines to be cut off until further notice. The more things change, the film seems to remind us without spelling it out in black and white, the more they remain the same.
Vicky Kaushal in and as Sardar Udham
As historical texts inform us and as depicted in the film, Udham shot O'Dwyer at a public function in London and surrendered immediately. We have seen police procedurals, defence and medical procedurals. Sardar Udham is an unusual combination of assassination procedural blended into the biopic genre. With the air of a reality show that had cameras following Udham, Sircar's film goes back and forth in time and place through the protagonist's association with the legendary Bhagat Singh (a well-cast Amol Parashar), his direct personal link to Jallianwala Bagh, his decision to take the fight to Europe where he gets acquainted with workers' movements and Irish rebellion, his friendship with the British activist Eileen Palmer (Kirsty Averton) and the years of precision planning that went into executing O'Dwyer.
The narrative accompanies Udham through the investigation into his actions conducted by Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Swain (Stephen Hogan), his torture while in police custody, his trial and hanging.
The opening text on screen says Sardar Udham is based on "news articles, research and various reports". The meticulousness of the research shows. Sircar's storytelling for Sardar Udham is so detailed, that it almost feels like he was standing beside Udham, watching him going about his business in early 20th century India and England. In this, he is aided by Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dmitrii Malich's incredibly credible production design and Avik Mukhopadhayay's watchful, almost brooding camerawork. The latter shoots both India and Europe in cold grays and sepia tones, a palette that is " appropriately for this saga " completely shorn of brightness, without ever coming across as premeditated. His visuals are stunning from the very first shot, but the aesthetics of this film never once overwhelm its soul.
Sircar, writers Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah and editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati understand that when a crime is as inhuman as the bloodbath in Jallianwala Bagh, you do not need hyperbole to make your point.
Vicky Kaushal is the picture of restraint in his performance as Udham, a purposeful man whose blood we can almost visualise boiling as we watch him wordlessly listening to O'Dwyer tell an adoring white audience in London that ruling India along with Africa is "the white man's burden".
Shaun Scott who plays O'Dwyer allows his racist character's ugly condescension to do the talking instead of succumbing to the temptation to caricature the villain of the plot. This is in keeping with Sircar's evident intent not to lazily caricature any representative of the British Empire in the film " doing so would have been too easy a path. Instead, the director lets their actions, their prejudice and heightened sense of self-importance make the point.
The entire cast's low-key acting is the cornerstone of this brilliant enterprise, complemented by beautifully moderated music and sound design. Of course there is some irony in seeing Kaushal here since he also played the lead in Uri: The Surgical Strike, a smartly disguised vehicle for the present establishment's "Yeh naya Hindustan hai, Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi aur maarega bhi"-style grandstanding. The casting choice serves to underline the contrast between the deliberate understatement in Sardar Udham and the clichÃ©s that have been a staple of the patriotic genre in Bollywood so far.
Sardar Udham does not have a linear narrative pattern. As a result, the carefully considered placement of events becomes crucial to its impact. The facts of the story are no secret, but O'Dwyer's assassination is startling all the same in Sircar's matter-of-fact rendition. And despite knowing all the details of Dyer's genocidal act, I could barely breathe when that scene finally came around in which he unblinkingly turns Jallianwala Bagh into a slaughter house while blocking its sole exit. The awareness that this happened in reality, that humans have actually done such terrible things to other humans, is made all the more chilling by Sircar's commitment to his tone of quietude throughout the narrative.
In a scene that seems to go on forever yet from which I could not tear my eyes away for a moment, when Udham wades through bodies lying on the ground after Dyer and his men have left, the relentlessness of the effort to save whoever can still be saved is heartbreaking.
The portrayal of Udham's girlfriend (a luminous Banita Sandhu) borders on the generic, yet avoids being a replica of the flashbacks to each soldier's sweetheart in J.P. Dutta's brand of cinema.
The director allows himself an indulgence with that concluding shot of Bhagat and Udham together in slow motion, but this is a minor slip in an otherwise stunning film.
That said, Bhagat is a crucial presence in Sardar Udham. The relevance of this slice of history to developments in today's India first hits home when he speaks of his party's commitment to the rights of farmers, workers and students worldwide. Bhagat also delineates the distinction between what he sees as legitimate violent protest and terrorism. His interpretation becomes clearer when Udham explains why he chose the particular place and time of O'Dwyer's death. Whether or not you agree, these passages are important in a present-day scenario where those who are in truth opposed to everything Bhagat Singh stood for are still trying to appropriate him for their own personal ends.
In a post-truth world, in an India where generating fake news pays rich dividends, Shoojit Sircar has chosen to recount a remarkable " and painful " true story with a reliance on facts and facts alone. The atrocities committed by the British colonisers in India are epitomised by the cruelty of Jallianwala Bagh. It is nothing short of a feat that Sircar has managed to chronicle that tragedy and its aftermath without turning his film into a call for vendetta. Both in terms of artistic merit and the political statements it makes, Sardar Udham is a landmark for Indian cinema.
Sardar Udham is streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad