Sardar Udham

Sardar Udham ★★★★½

There's a very good reason why Shoojit Sircar's biopic of a fierce, revolutionary and kind of an unsung freedom fighter, didn't release on its 'Indian Standard Time' of release- the Republic Day or the Independence Day, that is. Of course, it isn't catering to a particular sentiment- be it jingoistic or otherwise. But the lack of hyper-nationalism or revolutionary course correction, which the film is far from, isn't the only reason for that. It's just that, on days of remembering the struggle to achieve the independence, to brim with colours of joy in living in a free democratic nation, you'd not want your skin to relentlessly crawl. You'd not want to be on edge. You'd not want to be so moved that you're ultimately very uncomfortable with the fact that you're so moved. Sardar Udham, the film, does all that, and much more.

Shoojit had been waiting since 2001 to make this film. It's easily his most personal project, and quite rightly, his most impressive yet. It's a film that enormously benefits (and surprises) with its quiet, austere and at times meditative look towards a man who chose to pave the path out of his circumstances. We don't see Udham Singh explicitly trying to prove his love for the nation through hardcore dialogue. His nationalism is expressed through his drunken words at a city square, his pursuit of equality and freedom over the concern for being a humanitarian and working for the rest of the world, his thundering dissent towards the oppression of working-class. We know that his girlfriend Reshma was one of the victims of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, but is it the personal which has morphed into the political? No. And we know this despite not being told so. We're shown how this intimate concern disappears when Udham sees this festival-ground-turned-into-a-graveyard. The protest was right in the making when he pushed the cart of piles of half-dead people to the hospital. The scenes which talk about his encounters with Bhagat Singh are especially nuanced- Amol Parashar is exquisite in a brief role which lasts on your mind and spiritually, on our protagonist.

Vicky Kaushal is such a fine actor. His masterful display of grief and his charming syntax of small-town charisma was so masterful right in his debut with Ghaywan's Masaan (2015), I didn't think he could top that. And while he really went on to prove this with his following works, Udham Singh is easily the best performance of his career. Such fine, compelling threads of outer personality and internal unease are intertwined seamlessly by him. I went into the film with the knowledge that Irrfan Khan was the first choice for this character and it was also written with him in the mind. But to say that Kaushal elevates an already powerful character into a defining one, would be an understatement. Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, who shot Sircar's October and Gulabo Sitaabo and has been a frequent collaborator of Rituporno Ghosh, easily does the kind of work that should earn him an international recognition. Shantanu Moitra's composition is haunting, and the editing for once isn't a problem with a Hindi film. The writing by Ritesh Shah and Subhendu Bhattacharya is immersive. It doesn't try to sell you an agenda, or an assassination that caught a lightning sensation across the world. What it sells is what it feels like to protest, but to do that by stepping out of the periphery of the protest.

It's not just about a revolutionary. It's about his making too. While it doesn't aim to do any course correction, it will work perfectly as that too. I didn't expect that a Hindi biopic would cross the zone of competence and stimulate the most unhinged corners of its subject, and like this. Sardar Udham is the most essential film of the year, and it confirms Sircar as an auteur.

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