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Sardar Udham—story of the hero who took revenge for Britain’s bloody crime

This epic biopic tells the story of Indian revolutionary Udham Singh—and the massacre that drove him to hit back at the British Empire
Issue 2783
Vicky Kaushal as Udham Singh glares menacingly over his shoulder towards the viewer

Vicky Kaushal as Udham Singh

Hindi films are all about the ­costumes, the dancing and the hit songs, right? Not this one.

Sardar Udham is a carefully aimed punch to the stomach of British imperialism. As such, the mood is tense throughout its 2 hours and 49 minutes.

Director Shoojit Sircar’s biographical epic tells the story of Udham Singh. He was an Indian revolutionary who witnessed an atrocity so obscene that he spent the rest of his life seeking revenge for it.

Singh (played by Vicky Kaushal) was a teenager in the Punjabi city of Amritsar in 1919 when it rose against British rule.

Thousands of people took to the streets, burnt down buildings associated with the Raj, and killed a number of colonials.

In revenge, Michael O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott), the Lieutenant‑Governor of the province, demanded that Punjab be “taught a lesson”.

That lesson came in the form of a massacre in a park known as Jallianwala Bagh.

Troops of the British Indian army were ordered to shoot some 1,650 bullets into an unarmed crowd of 15,000 that were defying a curfew order. They killed or badly injured many hundreds.

The experience turned Singh into a revolutionary, and led him to join with other young people that dedicated their lives to fighting for liberation by any means necessary.

As Marxists, they not only wanted freedom from the British—but an India free from the rule of the rich.

The film is told as a series of ­recollections that come to Singh while in jail in Britain after shooting O’Dwyer dead in London.

As he is being tortured by the police and his jailers, Singh’s mind shifts to recollections of his revolutionary friends.

He remembers how after being jailed for his activities in India, he travelled to Britain in the hope of finding other nationalists and Communists that might help him seek vengeance.

Sardar Udham’s complex ­narrative structure means placing his most crucial recollection—the Amritsar Massacre—at the very end of the film.

That’s a daring move for a director, and whether it works is debatable.

A bigger problem is that the scenes of the massacre are almost unbearable to watch. The slow motion shots of dozens of individual shootings are both gruesome and ultra-realistic.

Perhaps it was necessary to show us some of them, to lend gravity to the crime. But I found it gratuitous and sickening—and had to cover my eyes.

More appropriately powerful are scenes in which a desperate Singh works through the night after the killing spree to find the living among the dead.

These are the parts of the film that will stay with you—and which ought to haunt all the present day defenders of the British Empire.

Sardar Udham was thought to be a dead cert for the Indian nomination to the Oscars, but some of the judges felt that its overtones were too anti-British.That’s wrong. In a powerful scene Singh is told by one of his British interrogators that he must “really hate” the British.

Singh is clear in his response, saying that he doesn’t even hate his torturers, because they are “just doing their job”.

Nevertheless, most of the British characters are written in a stiff upper lip way that is typical of many an Indian film.

Perhaps that stereotype is now so strong that Sircar felt he couldn’t deviate from it.

Sardar Udham is an attack on today’s empire defenders, and will provide no comfort to prime minister Narendra Modi and his government of right wing thugs.

For years they have tried to appropriate the leftist legends of Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh for their own chauvinist version of Indian history.

But Sircar reminds us that one of Udham Singh’s last cries from the dock at the Old Bailey was to declare that his name was “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad.”

It was a call for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to unite in the fight for liberation.

Sardar Udham is available on Amazon Prime with English subtitles

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