Shoojit Sircar is a man of quiet depth and restrained emotions. Even when he makes his lighter films, there is a unique elegance and classy charm attached to them, them studded with precious gem like moments, deeply layered subtlety, and an inexplicable repeat watch quality where you keep discovering a new something with every repeat watch. When the news first started flowing around that my most favourite hindi filmmaker of today’s times was going to make a biopic on Sardar Udham Singh and had the incredible Irrfan on his mind to play the titular role, it was naturally very exciting. While there were apprehensions about Shoojit also jumping into the biopic bandwagon, and also indulging in a genre that was outside his comfort zone, I also had the confidence that Shoojit, with his research , detailing, aesthetics and restraint, will lend the right amount of depth and gravitas to the forgotten story of this valiant revolutionary who took all his time but never lost focus on seeking justice on possibly the single most heinous crime and the darkest event of blood bath that marred India’s struggle for independence.
And it is so heartening to note that Shoojit Sircar and his film sparkles through and through, in spite of him stepping into uncharted territories, in spite of the tragic passing away of Irrfan in between and Vicky Kaushal stepping in to fill the very large shoes, and in spite to Shoojit Sircar going against the tide of telling a patriotic story with minimalistic quietitude, zero jingoism, and with the unsettling heaviness of a piercing slowburn. Sardar Udham couldn’t have been a better film under any other filmmaker and any other actor, both of them giving their everything to create an undeniable stunner. That’s how you conceive a film, that is where you take your ambition in terms of scale and canvas, and that is how you execute with precision. All this, even when the film really takes time to take off for the first hour or so, even when you know a tighter edit of some of those parts could have rested this miniscule crib and turned it to be a flawless masterpiece. But such is the mastery of Shoojit Sircar’s execution, so brilliant is his team with terrific cinematography with Avik Mukhopadhyay (yet again), goosebump inducing background score by Shantanu Moitra, outstanding production design by Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dmitriy Malich, brilliant sound design team and the rest of the crew, that one is completely transported into a different lived in atmospheric world even when it is completely alien to you, absorbing you completely in that milieu, never giving a scope to feel disengaged in spite of its slow pace. In fact, while there was some work to be cut out on the editing table (and there was possibly scope to take away may be 30 minutes from the 165 minutes running length of the film), full credits to editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati for seamlessly presenting one of the best non linear retelling of a heart wrenching real life story over multiple timelines.
Infact, the initial slow pace designed by Shoojit Sircar and his editor is completely intentional because they want to suck in the audience and settle them down in the world that they are going to rattle very very soon going down the pages of history. Shoojit and his perceptive writing team of Ritesh Shah and Subhendu Bhattacharya are more interested in exploring the Why of the mindspace of Udham Singh rather than the How the events unfolded, and hence it was important to give them the time to fully get there for us to understand the extent of horror that unfolded at the Jallianwala Bagh, the extent of helpless death and destruction that our protagonist experienced, and how it shaped his psyche to stay focused on his single most agenda of finishing of Michael O’Dwyer for decades without getting too much perturbed by the larger macroscopic landscape of the overall struggle for independence. The non-linear storytelling helps take the plot to its crescendo over time at its most opportune moment, even when the film opens with a note on what happened at the Jallianwala Bagh in the opening credits, and we also witness Udham Singh successfully executing Micheal O’Dwyer early on in the film. As the story progresses jumping back and forth over timelines, we get to understand the cold blooded shrewdness and cruel inhumanity of O’Dwyer and Dyer, their non chalant pride of executing the darkest of mass murders in history, and the indomitable spirit and the determined resolute strength of Udham Singh to seek some justice and closures over them in due course. And what do we say about how Shoojit Sircar and his team stages the horrific massacre and its heart wrenching aftermath of Udham Singh and team trying to find and save lives from the heap of death. It surely has to be one of the most brilliantly executed final hours of a hindi film in a long long time. The repetitive restaging of valiant effort by Udham Singh to rescue any residual lives from all the gore around him only adds to the impact of the tragedy and the horror that followed the actual incident. The incident of Jallianwala Bagh has been adapted to screen earlier as well, but this has to be the bleakest, most fearless and most disturbing depiction of that horror and the entire team of Sardar Udham deserves a huge shoutout for raising the film to such rousing heights without any cry for patriotic fervor, without any incessant dialoguebaazi, and without feeling the need to pretty up or sanitize the scale of destruction. In many ways, I was reminded of the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan and that’s quite a benchmark to hit in the depiction of such earth shattering destruction.
And yet all of this would have fallen flat had central performance of Vicky Kaushal wouldn’t have been what it is in the film. Without any spec of doubt, he has delivered the performance of his lifetime as Sardhar Udham, which will also go down as the Best Performance we have seen by any actor in Hindi Cinema this year. Shoojit Sircar has now made this a habit in film after film, from Deepika Padukone in Piku to Varun Dhawan in October to now Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham, where each one of them have effortlessly slipped into these characters to become them, totally sunk themselves into the world that Shoojit creates and then deliver their most naturally moving performances of all times in these films. With Udham Singh, Vicky Kaushal also gets a much larger canvas to show a solid character arc over decades, and he excels in his performance to depict every lifestage of Udham Singh so convincingly. Of course he shines the brightest as the young Udham haplessly in love with Reshma and helplessly losing out his fight to save lives from a grotesque blood bath he escaped incidentally. Somewhere up there, Irrfan would be feeling incredibly proud with what Vicky Kaushal has achieved as Sardar Udham.
And it is just not Vicky who shines. Shaun Scott as Michael O’Dwyer and Andrew Havill as General Dyer are as menacing as they need to be. Even the rest of the English cast are all in good form, and it is a relief that unlike most of the other Hindi films set up in the era of the British rule, the English characters here are not cardboard caricatures and are not trying to speak Hindi in funny accents for the most part. Banita Sandhu is again smartly used by Sircar without giving her dialogues to mouth, and her sweet innocence shines in the rare tender moments between her and Udham. The rest of the Indian actors are apt as well and give a well rounded footing to this brilliant film.
It has been about ten hours or so now that I have finished watching Udham Singh, and I have to confess that I still feel choked. The film left me shaken and deeply disturbed, so much so that I could hardly sleep through the night, trying to process what I just saw, and being emotionally moved like anything. But I didn’t regret the fact that I stayed up late to experience this superlative film. There’s so much that the rest of biopic makers in hindi cinema can learn from Shoojit Sircar about how to tell a historical story. Strike that. There is so much hindi filmmakers can learn from Shoojit Sircar about how to make cinema in all its understated grandeur, about how to be fearless in experimenting with various genres, various formats, and never ever creating a film that does not have the Shoojit Sircar class. I for one couldn’t have been happier as a very very proud fan!
To Shoojit Sircar! To Vicky Kaushal! To Sardar Udham!
Sardar Udham is now playing on Amazon Prime Video.
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