A broken man stumbles out of jail: Punjab, 1931. He walks through foggy fields. He trudges through the snow, somewhere in the USSR: 1933. He’s pulled to safety on a dog sled. He sits across the room from Bhagat Singh, both men reading, wrapped in blankets: Lahore, 1927. He alights at the docks, London, 1934, a member of a banned organization determined to become a revolutionary.
Some films just start right. There’s little talk in the first 20 minutes, just a series of spare, beautiful images. Some glide past. Others linger: Udham (Vicky Kaushal) trekking through the frozen landscape for two wordless minutes. Period films are usually keen to provide audiences with context right away. Sardar Udham does the opposite, denying us information. We only know this: Udham is being followed, Scotland Yard is keeping tabs on him, it’s no longer safe for him to stay in India. Also: he helps procure guns, but he doesn’t fire them.
Of course, he eventually fired a gun. It was his defining act, killing Michael O’Dwyer, the former governor of Punjab. The film shows this act relatively early on, then skips back and forth in time, alternating between build-up and aftermath. We see Udham trying to find a purpose in England, dealing with the Communists, the Soviets, revolutionary Indian expats, the IRA. His purpose manifests in the shape of O’Dwyer, retired and unrepentant. Udham offers his services as an odd-job man (the real Udham worked in a factory, as a mechanic and carpenter, even as a movie extra), getting close enough on occasion to kill him, but not going through.
Working with cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay and writers Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, Sircar builds an atmosphere of tension and melancholy. Udham is like a lonely assassin in a Jean-Pierre Melville film—the scenes with him in his room are like Le Samouraï. Unlike most Hindi film freedom fighters, he isn't a leader. His English is broken, but there’s no indication he’d be a captivating speaker in his own language. Yet, there is clarity of thought. When his friend, a Communist party member, asks him to march for the whole world, he declines, saying, “You equal, you march for being equal. I no equal. I no free.” Asked why he didn’t kill O’Dwyer when he was in his employ, he replies, “It would not have been a protest.”
Sardar Udham will make you wonder if you’ve ever seen a truly honest film about the freedom struggle. I do not mean an accurate one: I’m sure some of the stories in this film are embellished or invented, as they should be. But Sircar shows something I haven’t seen suggested in our cinema before—revolutionary struggle as a solitary business, the men and women involved plagued with loneliness and self-doubt. There are no flags unfurled or anthems sung. There is no glory. Even the assassination is a kind of suicide.
There’s a recreation of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that compares, for sheer unblinking brutality, with the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan. There have been depictions of this day in 1919—when troops under the command of General Dyer, acting on orders from O'Dwyer, fired on an unarmed crowd in a compound with no exit—in films before, but not like this. Men, women, children are shot in the back, the head. We see bullets enter throats and eyes. Limbs are blown clean off. Several are shot trying to jump over the wall, inches from freedom. There’s no slo-mo, no music till the very end, nothing to distract from the act itself.
A sequence like this, no matter how realistically depicted, is still a set piece. It’s what Sircar does next that’s revealing. Instead of drawing a straight line from the massacre to Singh’s radicalization, he keeps us in that hell. Udham visits the grounds, looking for his girlfriend. He makes this trip several times, carting the still-alive to a makeshift hospital. The aftermath goes on and on, an excruciating passage that drives home better than the shocking violence a few scenes earlier what might actually push a young man to give up his life for a freedom he won’t see.
There are fumbles: an unconvincing drunk scene, a rushed trial, a little too much English creeping into the speech of Bhagat and Udham. Some might find the film haphazard and gloomy, especially in the last act, and I wouldn’t blame them. I would argue, though, that in this era of ugly nationalism in Hindi cinema, making a film this spare and pessimistic about a famous revolutionary is a radical act. This Udham is not a charismatic hero. And Sircar doesn’t accord his actions any special significance. As far as the film is concerned, the only violence worth remembering is by the British government on 13 April 1919. After shooting O’Dwyer, Udham shouts, surprisingly, “It’s all over. It’s all over.” It was—for him, and, seven years later, for British rule in India. The film makes no link between the two, allowing Udham's act to remain personal, complicated and one of a million small blows against the empire.
Sardar Udham is on Amazon Prime Video.