Vicky Kaushal and Shoojit Sircar are waiting for the release of Sardar Udham, a biographical film about Udham Singh, a revolutionary freedom fighter who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in Amritsar, by assassinating Michael O’Dwyer in London.
In a session titled, The Extraordinary Men Who Brought Revolutionary Light To India at India Today Conclave 2021, Shoojit Sircar and Vicky Kaushal spoke about their upcoming film, their idea of patriotism, how Shoojit hasn’t watched Vicky’s film Uri yet, and much more.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How did you chance upon this film and why did you decide to make a film on Sardar Udham?
Shoojit: After school, when I was about to join college, I was a big fan of Bhagat Singh. In Delhi, you get to choose between the colleges of North Campus and South Campus. Since I am a fan of Bhagat Singh, I chose the Bhagat Singh college in the South Campus. My perspective towards the freedom movement changed when I visited the Jallianwala Bagh site. That site will hit you hard. I have been visiting the site since my college days. Then I read things about Udham Singh. Very little is mentioned about him in history. While reading and researching about him, I realised he was not a killing machine, he had a larger purpose. Beyond Punjab, only a few people know about him. I kept studying him, I matured in my art of filmmaking, and then I thought why not make a film on him.
In the film, you will find, I also don’t know much about Sardar Udham. People talk about him killing Michael O’Dwyer and his death, but they don’t know about his childhood, whether he was at the Jallianwala Bagh on that day. Some say he was, some say he wasn’t. Basically, he was a globetrotter who was deeply affected by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I tried to go into Sardar Udham’s mind. What he must be carrying with him for 21 years, what changed him. While researching, we found out that he visited many countries, he found oppressive governments and inequality in many countries, and he came to London with that thought. Why he shot Michael O’Dwyer was one thing, but what was the compulsion on that day and was it revenge, a protest or a message to the world? That is what this film explores.
How did you flesh out your character?
Vicky: I belong to a Punjabi family, born and raised in Mumbai. My ancestral home is two hours away from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre site. I have grown up listening to stories of Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh but once we started discussing the film, I realised how little we knew. Our history tells us so little. The way Shoojit wanted to show him was not as a superhero, he wanted to show him as a common man, as one of us who was affected by that one incident. For me, the quest was to find out the thing inside him that changed, what stirred him so much – that pain, that angst that he kept within himself for 21 years. He was a globetrotter whose understanding of world politics kept changing, His journey from the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) to the Gadar party, his camaraderie with Bhagat Singh – all these factors make him so fascinating. We finished shooting Sardar Udham, but my quest to find who Sardar Udham was continues.
What are the events of his life?
Vicky – 1899 he was born in Sunam, Punjab. He lost his mother early on and then, in some time, his father too. He and his elder brother lived in an orphanage. He was actually named Sher Singh, but the orphanage named him Udham. At the age of 20, after the Jallianwala Bagh incident happened, he left the orphanage and that’s where his personal journey started. While in London, he also worked as a background artist in the British film The Elephant Man. He has been a carpenter, a voyager. It is just fascinating to know. At the same time, he was planning to get people to rebuild the HSRA movement. He was trotting around the globe to get support for the movement. At finally in 1940, he avenges the bloodshed that happened in 1919 which changed him forever.
When he was in jail, he called himself Ram Mohammad Singh Udham, is it true?
Yes, he called himself Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. He was trying to give that kind of message.
How did your thinking evolve through this search?
We always see revolutionaries as heroic symbols. But I see heroism differently. For me, heroism is doing the right thing at the right time and sometimes, not doing it. These people were called rebels at that time, but they were actually building a movement for the youth. Their idea was not that of limited India, they wanted to liberate the entire world. That fascinated me.
One scene that had the most impact on you?
Vicky – The portions where we were trying to recreate the Jallianwala Bagh incident. As an actor, I knew what I was getting into but I still was not prepared for how numbing that experience would be for me as an individual. The way Shoojit shoots, his scenes are so realistic that you are thrown into that world. After finishing that shoot, there would be times when I wouldn’t sleep because I would just keep wondering that re-enactment of that incident was so numbing for me, what would have been the impact on the people who had actually witnessed that. This thought made me shiver.
How was the shooting experience for you?
Shoojit – I have no experience in creating an era. Most of the film is shot in London. It is funny that I had never visited London before this. So, everything was based on archaic footage, documentaries from the BBC films, national archive photos. I only remember Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. So, in the Jallianwala Bagh scene, you will see a resemblance to Gandhi.
Recreating Jallianwala Bagh is a huge affair. We couldn’t shoot at the very sight so we were hunting for a place for the same. But in Amritsar, we found people who helped us. The London scenes, most of them were shot in Russia. We found the right location. I didn’t have a large budget, I found the right places to shoot. This film was not about big sets, it was about Udham, it is a very character-driven film. So, I needed very small sections on the streets and, with the help of the VFX team, we tried to create this world. I think if I create the world right, 50 per cent of my work is done to capture the audience’s mind. So, this was the basic preparation.
Why did you choose Vicky for the role?
Shoojit – I have not seen Uri. I want to thank Vicky for choosing to do Masaan, otherwise, he won’t be doing Sardar Udham. He has a little bit of Punjabiat in him and I wanted that. I wanted somebody on my page. I needed somebody who can really understand the part. With Vicky, there was passion and focus.
What is your idea of India?
Vicky – I am just a medium for the director to tell his/her story. Be it playing an army official or a freedom fighter, I surrender to that world. That is my duty, that is the task that I take up. I play by the rules of the director. About the idea of patriotism, we have grown up reading out the pledge, and it was about celebrating diversity, brotherhood. For me, one of the things that I am proudest about being an Indian is that in every 100 km, the culture changes, the food changes, the way we dress changes. Black, brown, white – we are living in a land where people of every shade live. For me, we all together make India.