'Sardar Udham' bares the heart of revolutionary director Shoojit Sircar

The film raises the bar on how nationalistic movies can be presented, with a heartbreaking sequence of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

By Kaveree Bamzai

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Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham (Photos/Supplied)
Vicky Kaushal as Sardar Udham (Photos/Supplied)

Published: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 10:02 AM

Last updated: Thu 28 Oct 2021, 10:15 AM

Shoojit Sircar is one of contemporary Bollywood’s most iconic filmmakers.

He has directed the winsome comedy Vicky Donor (2012) — one of Bollywood’s finest road trip movies — Piku (2015), and the outrageous satire Gulabo Sitabo (2020).

This year, his Sardar Udham has raised the bar on how nationalistic movies can be presented on the back of its outstanding production design and a heartbreaking sequence of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, which was shot in Amritsar over 19 days.

Yet, Sircar lives in Kolkata, with his wife and two daughters, aged 15 and 19, respectively, and far away from the blinding lights of Mumbai.

He loves cooking — strangely, for a Bengali he is a vegetarian — cleaning, and gardening.

“I haven’t experienced Kolkata. So, I just wanted my daughters to be around their cousins. The film world can be a little claustrophobic. There is so much pressure there. In Kolkata, I love to do my own work,” he says.

A self-taught filmmaker, Sircar made his Bollywood debut with Yahaan in 2005, but found little success initially until Vicky Donor firmly established his credentials. It was a movie that convinced everyone that Sircar, the son of an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer, was a Punjabi.

He isn’t but loves the state, finding a kinship with their large heartedness when he travelled through the state doing amateur theatre while studying at Delhi University’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh College.

A new take on Bhagat Singh

He had come to Mumbai with his friend Ronnie Lahiri — now his partner at Rising Sun Films — with the idea of making a movie on Bhagat Singh.

But the idea was a little too fashionable at that time, with a series of films in 2002 on the revolutionary that Sircar found fascinating.

“Bhagat Singh for me was how I portrayed him in Sardar Udham,” he says.

“Young, romantic, quite ahead of his time, who talked about socialism, freedom and revolution,” he adds.

Sircar had intended to make Sardar Udham with the late actor Irrfan Khan, whose performance in Piku was mesmerising. But tragically, it was not to be.

Sircar says the response to Sardar Udham has been quite extraordinary. “I wanted audiences to take back home Jallianwala Bagh. It’s overwhelming. People have been calling and even tough grown men have called me and just broken down when they recalled the sequence,” says Sircar, who hopes the British Raj is seen for what it was, “an oppressive, colonial regime, which is not taught to us as that”.

A scene from 'Sardar Udham'

He is curiously detached from both success and failure. This is, perhaps, because he spent much of his childhood across three different Kendriya Vidyalayas in Hasimara, north Bengal; Barrackpore on the outskirts of Kolkata and then Andrews Ganj, south Delhi. “When you’re travelling, you experience things around you differently,” he says of his school days.

An important message

He has always been particular about what his movies say, whether it was that women should not back down in Pink, which he produced in 2016, or whether it was the inevitability of death, but a good one, in October (2018).

He is also fascinated by history — as contemporary as the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) role in it — and made Madras Cafe (2013).

“We don’t know our own history,” he says.

“We know the British role in the Allied forces and World War-II but we don’t know what the British did in India,” he says.

Which is why Sardar Udham ends with the legend: 2.6 million Indians died fighting for the British in World Wars-I and II and four million died of starvation in British India.”

So, how does he recover from a movie like this? He doesn’t. “The film is me. Once you’ve done it, it becomes part of you. You become more responsible,” he adds.

The amount of research he did for Sardar Udham was intensive, says actor Vicky Kaushal. “After you absorb everything, you’ve read, you just have to keep your cup empty and receive it from Shoojit da,” he says.

As for Sircar, once he decided on Kaushal for the lead role, he says, he couldn’t imagine anyone else who could capture the folk hero’s ethos.

For the man who dreams in English and Bengali, makes films in Hindi and curses in Punjabi — or so, says Kaushal — the message is the medium and the medium is a powerful megaphone for his thoughts and convictions.

The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India

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