In 2018’s Raazi he famously played a measured Pakistani Army Officer duped by his Indian bride who turns out to be an undercover agent for Indian Intelligent Forces. Then in 2019’s melodramatic Uri: The Surgical Strike he essayed a ‘Josh’ driven Para Special Forces Major.
He will soon be seen enacting the role of celebrated Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in a war drama directed by Meghna Gulzar. In the meantime he is currently out on Amazon Prime Video as the eponymous Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh.
A known figure in the Indian Freedom Fighting movement, Udham Singh, deeply influenced by Bhagat Singh, went on to assassinate the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer in London in 1940 to avenge the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. He was convicted of murder and hanged the same year.
So what attracts Vicky Kaushal, the son of a Bollywood stuntman-turned action director, known for taking on dark, intense characters on screen, to movies with a patriotic framework?
The former assistant director, who enthralled us as a drug-addled police officer on the heels of a serial killer in Raman Raghav (2016) responds with a smile, over a recent Zoom conversation.
He explains that while it may seem like there is a series of such films coming out, he doesn’t do them just because they are patriotic movies.
“I see them as independent stories and if they touch the right chords in my system, then I jump at it.”
His Sardar Udham, a biopic on the Indian freedom fighter, directed by Shoojit Sircar, is streaming now on the OTT platform.
The movie has won the actor heavy praise and while some may find the pace of the plot a bit too sedate, the intensity with which Kaushal plays his role has only come in for commendations from all quarters. Excerpts of our interview with the actor, whom we spoke to ahead of the release of the movie.
WATCH: VICKY KAUSHAL TALKS TO CITY TIMES ON SARDAR UDHAM
What attracts Vicky Kaushal to roles with a patriotic flavour in them?
It is just organically happening that way. The stories attached to the characters is what attracts me; the filmmakers attached to those stories attract me. I have no regrets (doing such movies) also because as an audience I love watching patriotic films. I love watching films that touch those chords in my system. And if I get to play parts in such stories, I really jump at them.
What was it that appealed to you about Sardar Udham Singh when you first heard the script?
Belonging to a Punjabi family, Sardar Udham Singh is a folklore I have been hearing since I was a kid. (I was almost like) a kid who was hearing the story of a raja and rani from his grandmother and then eventually 20 years later getting to play that raja. It is a surreal feeling for me. I’ve been hearing these stories since I was a child and eventually to be able to get to play that legendary part was a dream come true.
Are you hoping the film will make Udham Singh a figure the modern generation can relate to?
One hundred per cent. There are so many unsung heroes in our history of Indian freedom movements that actually sacrifice their lives so we can live in a free, democratic country. It is a moral responsibility to come out with books and films and songs about these legends so we can keep them alive, and we can pass their stories to generations to come.
It is important for us to know the kind of sacrifices that have been made in our past for us to be able to live in a free country, and that is what our humble efforts have been.
How relevant is the movie for a world that is going through so much turmoil right now?
Firstly, I think the world has always been going through turmoil. It is going through turmoil and it will continue to go through turmoil of different natures. That is life and that’s how it has always been. It is just that we are living in a digital world where we get bombarded with information every three minutes that we think okay, only this is going on. It’s always been going on.
Secondly I always feel it is not the biopic of a person, it is the biopic of an ideology. Ideologies are timeless, always relevant because the truth of the ideology in 1930 would be the truth now, and the truth later because the truth never changes. So I feel it is completely relevant.
What was the most challenging aspect of playing a real flesh and blood character?
I’m playing the 20-year-old as well as the 40-year-old Udham Singh so there were some weight fluctuations I had to go through. I had two months to lose 15 kilos to look like the 20-year-old and 25 days to gain it all back so I could play the 40-year-old part. That required its own preparation.
Other than that there was always the mental preparation going on to constantly get those emotions right and get that mind right, because the way that Shoojit Sircar makes the film, it is not very verbose. It is not a film where you are spoon fed emotions through dialogues.
There are lots of silences, there are lots of moments created where it is only through your eyes, through what you are not speaking that you have to translate those emotions and for that, internalising those emotions becomes very important. That sometimes would be exhausting; it sometimes would be very tricky, going to the depths of your inner core to explore those emotions - that was challenging.
Also there is the sense of responsibility that comes with doing a biopic on a freedom fighter. Like you mentioned, he is not one of the most popular freedom fighters or well read about or well elaborated in our history books. If the film does resonate with people, if they do like this film, this is how you’ll remember him and that is a big responsibility when you are making the film.
While doing the movie what was the one thing that really surprised you about Udham Singh, which you didn’t know before?
The one thing that really surprised me was this anecdote of how Sardar Udham Singh had worked as a background artist in a British film called The Elephant Boy. When you do a film based on a freedom fighter, the last thing you expect is him working in movies!
That completely blew my mind and then you hear that he was a carpenter, a welder; he worked on ships, at the same time he was working in a parallel manner to rebuild the HSRA (the revolutionary Hindustan Socialist Republican Association) across the globe. It’s just bizarre for a person to do all these things at the same time.
How do you feel about Sardar Udham releasing on OTT?
We are living in different times and one thing that has happened in the past 18 months of us being holed up in our houses is that if there were no OTT platforms, there would have been no entertainment, and if there was no entertainment, we would have gone cuckoo!
Earlier the balance was a bit off - theatres would be considered mainstream and OTT was not the main thing. But in the past 18 months, it has become a very even playing ground - of course, the romance of theatres is always going to be there, but at the same time now people are also looking for safety and convenience and their choice of cinemas as well, and all that is getting provided on OTT.
On OTT there is the convenience of watching the film at 3 in the morning, 12 at night, 5 in the morning, whenever you wish to. You have films from across the globe in your pockets right now where you can choose to watch whichever one you want to. The film remains more timeless on OTT. With the kind of film that Sardar Udham is - it justifies bringing it out on Amazon Prime Video because it is important for this film to reach out to a wider audience, to a global audience.
Udham Singh was said to be a master of disguises. As an actor was that a connect for you?
It was, it was. It was fascinating for me to know that. He was not doing it now when we have all sorts of technology and filters. He was doing it 100 years back when there were not resources and means and he was doing it all for his survival and his quest for a free India. He was travelling all across the globe, he was in US, Germany, Russia, London, Italy. To realise a person was globetrotting 100 years back with different identities and professions - it makes him a very fascinating and mysterious character.
Vicky mum on Katrina
While Vicky Kaushal has made a name for himself in a short while in the industry with a series of roles in movies as wide-ranging as Masaan, Gangs of Wasseypur, Sanju and Manmarziyaan, among others, there is no doubting of late he has been majorly in the news for his personal life.
Rumours of a dalliance between him and Katrina Kaif have been doing the rounds for a while and at one point certain media outlets had gone to the extent of claiming both sides of the families had met to make the arrangement for the wedding, a report that was later denied by them as well.
Quiz him as to how he ensures what is spoken about him does not overshadow the work he does on screen and the actor is pretty nonchalant when he says; “By continuing to keep working. My focus is at work; it will continue to be at work. The noise around is not my responsibility. It is created and then it is silenced all by itself. I have my blinders on to my work, and I just keep focusing there.”
Then as if to underline the absurdity of most news concerning his private life, he adds; “Mostly what happens is they come out with a news at 9am and by 4:30 they say, it is not true! So I don’t need to do anything!” While he probably was not in the mood to overshare with us, we read that to an Indian media publication he recently announced in so many words that - “I will get engaged soon enough.” Blinkers off!