History tells us that on March 13, 1940, Michael O’Dwyer (Shaun Scott), former Lt governor of the Punjab province, was shot dead by Sardar Udham Singh (Vicky Kaushal). O’Dwyer gave the orders to General Dyer on April 13, 1919 to teach the revolutionaries a lesson they won’t forget. Dyer opened fire on a peaceful gathering of around 10.000 people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, which resulted in thousands getting wounded and killed. Udham Singh witnesses the atrocity first hand and vows to avenge the tragedy. But as the film points out, it wasn’t just a simple murder. Udham could have safely killed O’Dwyer before as he got plenty of opportunities. He chose to do it at a public place, at Caxton Hall, when O’Dwyer was making a speech on how the British presence has been beneficial for the “Indian savages.” The assasination was a mark of protest against British imperialism.
Udham, though elder to Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar) by some years, nevertheless looks up to the firebrand revolutionary. He joins Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and in the film is known to procure guns and ammunition for them. After Bhagat Singh’s death in 1931, he shifts abroad, and acts as a solo agent of sorts for Indian freedom fighters, arranging for funds and guns from such far off places such as America, Russia, Spain and Germany. He maintains several passports and aliases, takes up a number of professions like film extra, lingerie salesman, welder, stationary merchant and basically eludes the British secret police for a number of years before exacting his revenge. He’s shown to be close to an English woman, Eileen (Kirsty Averton), who had ties with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Udham meets the IRA functionaries in London and convinces them their struggle and his struggle are the same. All these aspects are faithfully reconstructed by director Shoojit Sircar. Not much is known about this historic figure. Sircar helps us gain an insight into the mind of this shadow revolutionary. In one scene, he asks the Scotland Yard officer (Stephen Hogan), when questioned about Bhagat Singh, “What were you doing when you were 23?”. In another instance, he states that our scriptures say that a man’s youth lays the foundation for his life. “Meri jawani ka koi matlab bana,” he asks. He gives a drunken speech in what supposedly is Hyde Park about freedom and free speech, which illuminates his worldview about what a revolutionary truly is– a man fighting for the rights of everyone on this earth, demanding equality for every citizen, irrespective of religious and national boundaries.
Sircar spends close to 45 minutes in the latter half of the film recreating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in all its gory detail. This segment makes for a difficult watch, but watch it we must to understand why Udham Singh kept the fire of vengeance burning in his heart for 20 years. Udham is shown caring for the victims who are still alive, getting them water, carting them around to the hospital in a thela, doing it again and again till he drops down from sheer exhaustion. “Koi zinda hai,” he asks, and you get goosebumps. This is Sircar’s most poignant cinematic achievement. He doesn’t give the viewer any mercy, making them feel as helpless, as numb as Udham. No words are necessary after this. The images haunt you and will continue to haunt your dreams in days to come.
The art direction, cinematography, sound design are all world class. It’s as if Sircar has somehow transported us back in time. The non-linear narration too works in the film’s favour. The film is close to three hours long but never once you feel bored. All the technical finesse in the world holds no meaning if the actors don’t do their job. The film rests on Vicky Kaushal’s able shoulders and he’s given his soul to playing Udham Singh. It’s his best performance till date. He showcases all the shades of the character he portrays, baring it all and makes us experience every aspect of Udham Singh– be it his revolutionary zeal, the love and respect he has for Bhagat Singh, the agony created by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the loneliness of his secret quest. And all this is done through subtle changes of expression, of body language. He isn’t loud even once in the film, letting his eyes and silences convey the hidden depths of the character he portrays.
We seldom make biopics as good as these. After giving us Udham Singh, maybe Shoojit Sircar should give us Bhagat Singh next. This film deserved a theatrical release and we hope the makers give a thought towards that in near future.