On 13 March 1940, about 20 years after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, Udham Singh assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, who was lieutenant governor of the Punjab at the time and supported Brigadier General Reginald Dyer’s actions in Amritsar. Singh held O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre. After the shooting on 13 March at Caxton Hall, Singh was sentenced to death. He was hanged in London in July 1940.
Film-maker Shoojit Sircar, who had long been fascinated with the mind of a freedom fighter, had first cast Irrfan Khan as the Indian revolutionary. Following Khan’s illness, Masaan and Uri actor Vicky Kaushal stepped into the role, in the biopic titled Sardar Udham.
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Not much is documented about Singh, who came into prominence only after the assassination. Kaushal speaks about the challenges of creating the character and why he believes Udham Singh is an important individual in Indian history. Edited excerpts:
You came into the project late. What was required to prepare for the part?
Fortunately, I was familiar with the folklore of Udham Singh. Belonging to a Punjabi family, my ancestral house is just two hours from Jallianwala Bagh and we have grown up with stories of Shaheed Bhagat Singh and Sardar Udham Singh. Of course, I was familiar with the freedom struggle but I didn’t just know these stories from history books. I had heard stories from my grandparents and parents, so I had the cultural familiarity and some idea about his actions, his connection with the massacre, the assassination of Michael O’Dwyer and then his imprisonment and hanging. My prep started with getting to know the person.
Is this film any different from other films about freedom fighters?
I understood early on that the way Shoojit Sircar is looking to present this story is not in the way we usually show freedom fighters—as superheroes who are larger than life. Yes, they are heroes, but Shoojit wanted to make him human and relatable in a way that you feel he was one of us. This young man went through something that changed him; something he could not let go of. The film looks at Udham Singh’s take on freedom and equality. Hopefully, we have made a film that resonates with the fact that there is a revolutionary in each of us.
Can you expand on that?
What I have learnt from Sardar Udham Singh is that his ideas of freedom and equality were not confined by the borders of India. He spoke about equality and freedom for the world. He believed in that. He spoke about the crime of man against man and of nation against nation. He didn’t hate the British but he hated those Britishers who represented the evils of imperialism and colonialism. In our usual depictions of the freedom movement, we don’t always talk about beliefs and ideologies. In that sense this is not a run of the mill biopic of a person, but the biopic of an ideology. The truth of ideology is universal and it will be as true in 1919 as it is in 1940 and 2021.
There is a mystery about Singh. He was an adventurer, an extra in movies, a mechanic and a carpenter. He had numerous aliases and was harbouring this anger for 20 years. He was so many things and also an enigma. How did you absorb and internalise all that?
For me the process of discovering Udham Singh is still on. He was mysterious, and a fascinating human being. He kept changing his name and identities. He travelled cross-country to Germany, Italy, Spain, US, Russia to reach London. In between he took on different professions—welder, car mechanic, voyager, background artist (in Elephant Boy, 1937), while also trying to garner support for the Ghadar Movement and make people aware of the injustices and brutalities of the imperialistic British government in India. He was also carrying the pain of the bloodbath he witnessed in 1919.
All of this happened to one person. He is also not a properly documented freedom fighter. There are conflicting reports of his whereabouts during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. So, for me the script was the blueprint, it was the map that would bring out the enigma through the screenplay. As an actor, since I didn’t have the crutch of dialogues or words, it was very important to internalise his emotional state of mind, and for that I would lean on Shoojit Sircar and his vision.
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The release of ‘Sardar Udham’ is the culmination of a long journey. Where do you go from here?
In between the two lockdowns, and since then, I have finished two films. One is a film for Yash Raj Films directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya and the other is Mr Lele, directed by Shashank Khaitan. I will start work on another biopic soon. Sam Bahadur is based on the life of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, for which I will again be working with my Raazi director, Meghna Gulzar.
What about ‘The Immortal Ashwatthama’?
Unfortunately, that has been kept on hold and will be revisited at a more favourable time. It is a visual effects dependent, big budget film, so we have no choice but to wait.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer.