It was the worst of times. The British Imperial Legislative Council passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act on 18 March 1919, indefinitely extending the emergency measures of indefinite detention, incarceration without trial, and judicial review. On 13 April 1919, North Indians had gathered to celebrate Vaisakhi in Amritsar. There was a quiet protest in the Jallianwala Bagh, followed by a terrible event — British troops fired bullets at unarmed gathered civilians. They killed 379 people and wounded 1200 innocent people. The history of this obnoxious genocide is intertwined in the story of Sardar Udham Singh.
Udham Singh was born in Sangrur district as Sher Singh. When his parents died, he was brought up in an orphanage as Udham Singh. After witnessing the massacre, he tattooed a secular name for himself on his forearm. He became Ram Mohammad Singh Azad and dedicated his life to avenging the heinous crime perpetrated on Golden Temple Road. Udham suffered immense psychological trauma when he witnessed the horrifying massacre of civilians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar.
Directed by Shoojit Sircar and produced by Rising Sun Films in collaboration with Kino Works, Sardar Udham is a historical fiction film based on the life of revolutionary Sardar Udham Singh. The role was originally written for the legendary Irrfan Khan but he could not accept it because of his ill health. Vicky Kaushal signed the film in March 2019. The shooting of the film took place in London, Russia, United Kingdom, Europe, Ireland, Germany, and India. Kaushal is phenomenal as Udham Singh. He has received raving reviews. It seems like he spent his entire life preparing for the film. His acting prowess is enhanced by the marvelous cinematography by Avik Mukhopadhyay. The production design by Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dimitriy Malich weaved a richly detailed period drama. The film score was composed by Shantanu Moitra and produced by George Joseph. The instrumental tracks are moody and reflective in tandem with the theme.
The young Reshma, played by the British actress Banita Sandhu, brings softness and warmth to the pensive character of Udham Singh. Their interactions are sweet and fragrant like a box of freshly made besan ladoos. Her face is very emotive — bright eyes carry a million expressions. Although Kaushal looks svelte in European attire, it is lovely to see his character relax for a few scenes as the boy he was. My heart ached to see more tender moments, but that’s life. The soft offerings are too few and far between. And sometimes they may never happen ( Like the people who died in the park.)
The other larger-than-life character was Amol Parashar as Bhagat Singh. This film, unlike other Bollywood movies, does not present tropes of British actors but introduces veteran actors like Stephen Hogan as Inspector Swain, Kirsty Averton as Eileen Palmer, Andrew Havill as General Reginald Dyer, Tom Hudson as Winston Churchill, Tim Berrington as John Hutchison, and Nicholas Gecks as Justice Atkinson. Shaun Scott’s persona as Michael O’Dwyer is complex and twisted like the real O’Dwyer.
As a kid, I was very aware of the Indian freedom movement. My grandfather, Lala Gyanchand Kapur, who lived in Amritsar, was by a miracle, called back home to Lahore on that ominous day. Growing up, the Jaliyan Wallah Bagh memorial was close to our home. Every time we visited the Golden Temple Complex, we visited the bagh. I went to the memorial of the lost innocent souls, touched the bullet holes on ancient brick walls, sat on the ground with my family and prayed for peace. Our lives are a gift from the sacrifice of martyrs like Udham Singh, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru — a gift of freedom from bondage.
About ten movies have been made about Udham Singh, but this one by far is the best! Sircar lets us linger on the travesty of unconscionable human suffering.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.