Sardar Udham
by Dripta Sarangi

In Shoojit Sircar’s 2021 biopic Sardar Udham (2h 44min),  Udham (played by Vicky Kaushal) is asked by his British comrade Eileen the reason why he is only fighting for the freedom of the people in his own land but not the freedom for everyone. Udham replies that only after being free from the English rule he can claim himself to be equal to Eileen, who can demand everyone’s freedom, but Udham has to demand it first for his own people.  

In the school textbooks, Udham Singh is reduced to a couple of sentences for his contribution to India’s freedom struggle. We are told he was a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and the Ghadar Party, and that he was the assassin of Michael O'Dwyer who was the infamous Lieutenant Governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. He was hanged by the British for that act – and since has been one of the martyrs of the freedom struggle.

Biopics on freedom fighters of India’s Independence Movement have always tended to depict the protagonists as superhuman, self-righteous, masculine heroes. Drenched in jingoistic patriotism, these movies erase the actual heroes of the freedom struggle – the people and their tireless struggle for their dignity, be it their dignity in freedom from colonial rule, or in the dignity of their labour. Most of the Freedom Struggle movies we see, have imagined India as Mother, where the duty of her sons is to break her chains and save her from the tyranny of the “foreign” English.

Sardar Udham breaks this trend. This film does not need to imagine the country as a symbolic entity pictured as Mother. The country is real here with its people and their exploited labour – labour which creates wealth in India which is drained away illegally by the parasitic British empire.

Udham Singh of this film, therefore comes across as an undaunted young man whose act of killing the ruthless O’Dwyer at a meeting at Caxton Hall is neither revenge, nor a hot-headed action to liberate the country. Rather, it is a symbolic act of protest - which rekindles the fires that killed thousands on 13th April, 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh. It reinvigorates the memory of the massacre, and it has the power to affect the actions of revolutionaries in the soil of the country.

Udham is also depicted as a torn man in his late youth. As a witness of Jallianwala Bagh, as a former comrade of martyr Bhagat Singh - he carries a heavy heart laden by the memories of the killings of his people and his comrades. Yet his eyes still dream of revolution as his zeal crosses the boundaries of country, continent or race in finding allies to lit up the flames of protest in his county.

What is more interesting about the movie and Udham’s character, is that Udham is not shown to be a patriotic Indian alone but a revolutionary inspired by communist ideology. This film unapologetically shows the communist ideological sides of HSRA, the ideals and the thinking of the Party. While in custody, while being viciously tortured and interrogated - Udham goes by the name of Ram Mohammad Singh Azad. The first three of of these names reflect the three most prominent religious identities (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh) of the South Asian subcontinent, which are repeatedly pitted against each other by colonial and communal politicians. Those three names unite in one single name – finally brought together by ‘Azad’ – which means ‘Free’ and is also the name by which his HSRA comrade Chandrashekhar has been known.  

Today, that name resonates strangely with the Indian viewer. We are watching this film in an India ruled by Hindu supremacists, and everyday we hear reports of incidents in which Muslim minorities are subjugated, humiliated, abused, and killed.  Likewise in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh (and Myanmar and Sri Lanka too), minorities continue to face humiliation and death. Seven and half decades after “azaadi” (freedom), we are far from achieving the India or South Asia for which “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad” sacrificed his life. Instead it seems we are now going in the opposite direction. But the name is also a powerful reminder – that we today must struggle to live up to Udham Singh and his comrades.     

What haunts the film is the story (told in a non linear way) of Udham’s memory and lived experience of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. The excruciating details of Amritsar 1919, the slaughter, the agony, the tedious Sisyphyan rescue operations carried out by the volunteers despite the night curfew, the sedated steady operations of the frontline medical professionals - encompass only the last 45 minutes of the movie, as Udham recalls in vivid, graphic details the events from that day and night to the British detective who dealt with his case.  

Those memories of Jallianwala Bagh brought to life in the film forces us to confront the fact that Jallianwala Bagh is not really a thing of the past. It is a lived reality, in India today where rulers continue to use colonial-era laws to gag and imprison those who walk in Udham Singh’s or Bhagat Singh’s or even Ambedkar’s or Gandhi’ footsteps; where struggling workers or farmers or adivasis are cold-bloodedly massacred by police forces or henchmen of the ruling party.   

The ideas of revolution cannot be buried - while being taken away from the court after being sentenced to death - Udham‘s slogan “Inquilab Zindabad” resonates long after the film is over. It is both a promise and a challenge.

Udham singh