‘Nationalism has to be rational’: Shoojit Sircar

The director of Sardar Udham, which has won five National Film awards, talks about making a ‘nationalist’ film in an age of hyper-nationalism.

Published : Aug 31, 2023 19:08 IST - 9 MINS READ

Shoojit Sircar

Shoojit Sircar | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Shoojit Sircar’s period piece, Sardar Udham, bagged five awards at the 69th National Film Awards: Best Hindi Film, Best Cinematography (Avik Mukhopadhyay), Best Audiography (Sinoy Joseph), Best Costume Designer (Veera Kapur Ee), and Best Production Design (Dmitrii Malich and Mansi Dhruv Mehta). Sircar has directed other critically acclaimed films like Vicky Donor, Madras Café, and Piku. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, he spoke of the making of Sardar Udham and why he chose to make a film on the revolutionary known for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer in London.

Shoojit Sircar directing Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham.

Shoojit Sircar directing Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

What made you choose a relatively obscure historical figure like Udham Singh as the subject of your film?

Initially, I wanted to make a film on Bhagat Singh. I wanted to show how normal a young man he was, like so many revolutionaries fresh out of college. But then, Bollywood had already made a couple of films on him, and I felt one more film would be one too many.

Then, around 1998-99, I shifted my focus to Jallianwala Bagh. I kept visiting the site of the massacre. Once, on the anniversary of the massacre, I saw many people visiting the place—mostly descendants of those killed on that day, and also some old relatives. They shared the stories they had heard, and it was a very emotional moment for me. Till that point, I had not really thought of making a film on the subject. While continuing with my research, I came upon the figure of Sardar Udham Singh—a man who was very close to Bhagat Singh. He was an elusive figure, about whom we got to know only after he assassinated Michael O’ Dwyer in London (the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab under whose rule the Jallianwala Bagh shooting took place in Amritsar on April 13, 1919). I then began trying to find out more about him.

Most of what we know about Udham Singh is through his diaries and notes, and the interrogation he was put through by the British. Information about him is quite scattered—we know he went to Spain, Germany, and Russia, but little else is known. The film, too, presents the different facts about him in a way that is not linear. I have been criticised for this, and I quite understand their point of view. I tried to put together all the information I had managed to get from his diaries, his prison letters, his family members, a couple of magazine stories from Punjab Kesari and The Tribune, some information from the British archives, and a few books and essays. I completely avoided his stay in the United States; it is only mentioned in the film. Whether he was there amid the dead bodies on the night of the massacre is still a subject of debate. But I wanted to show that he was there.

I would also say that the spirit of Bhagat Singh is always hovering over what is happening on the screen. I strongly wanted to convey my own perception of Bhagat Singh. There is a flashback scene where he is asked what he will do on the day India gets her freedom, and he laughs and says that he will drink some wine, go out dancing, and then come back home, eat dinner, and go to sleep. He was a revolutionary, a man at the height of his spiritual creativity and ready to die for his cause; but at the same time, he was also a very normal young man who wanted to do the things normal young people do.

A still from Sardar Udham where Vicky Kaushal plays the title role.

A still from Sardar Udham where Vicky Kaushal plays the title role. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Your characterisation of Udham is very interesting. He is forever a solitary, detached figure. It is as though he was always living inside his own head. Why did you project him like that?

On the one hand, he was driven by his mission to kill O’ Dwyer and reorganise the revolutionary groups he was with; and on the other hand, he was carrying with him his experience on the night of the massacre amidst the dead and the dying. That experience transformed him.

I shot the scene for the night of the massacre first. I needed to capture Udham as a 19-year-old before the transformation. For 20 days we shot that night scene. At first, everybody in the unit was wondering “what is Shoojit da doing”. But after the first day’s shooting, when Udham comes and picks up a wounded body and takes it out, everyone, even Avik da (cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay) was feeling a little disturbed. Day after day, for eight hours at a stretch, we shot Udham picking up bodies amid the dead and wounded and taking them to the hospital.

Slowly, the crew was also getting emotionally numb. Vicky (Vicky Kaushal played the role of Udham Singh) told me that he could not sleep one night. I wanted him to experience the horror of that night so that he could perform the way I wanted him to perform. Nothing is fictional in my depiction of the massacre and its aftermath. I used around a thousand litres of fluid every day to show the blood in the scene. I was very particular about the colour of the blood too, as the colour of blood appears different on different surfaces. In mud it looks a certain way, on a white-tiled hospital floor another way.

We shot the rest of the film after this, but the experience of shooting the scene remained with us all the time. I tried to imagine how Udham would have lived with this experience. Someone who has witnessed something like this can never be normal. He would be like the living dead.

  • Shoojit Sircar talks about how he came to make a film on Udham Singh, who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab under whose rule the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar on April 13, 1919.
  • Sircar says he initially wanted to make a film on Bhagat Singh but changed his mind as Bollywood had already made films on him, and points out that the spirit of Bhagat Singh nevertheless is a hovering presence in the film.
  • Sircar explains why the film had to be a slow-burn period piece and why Udham Singh, transformed as he was by the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, had to be characterised as a solitary, brooding figure.
Another still from Sardar Udham.

Another still from Sardar Udham. | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In a film of around two hours 45 minutes, more than 45 minutes were spent on the massacre and its aftermath. Some would consider that a bit too long.

It was absolutely deliberate. The Jallianwala Bagh incident is the fulcrum of a huge nationalist revolutionary movement that happened at that time, but for our generation, it is like folklore. Apart from the [Hunter] committee report on the incident, we have little information on what actually happened. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was a reference point for me. The opening shot of the scene in my film is exactly like how it was shown in Gandhi. We had many discussions regarding the length of the scene—during shooting, after shooting, and even at the time of release. But I did not want to change it. I just wanted to exhaust everyone and myself.

The aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh firing continued for nearly a month after it happened. Hardly anybody knows what happened that night, after the massacre. I was not glorifying violence but trying to shake people out of their comfort zone. I wanted the audience to feel the seemingly endless night and Udham’s exhaustion and horror to understand his action. I wanted them to come out of the movie hall feeling exhausted too.

Also Read | Legacy of the Left

In an age of shrill hyper-nationalism, your film is a brooding slow-burn period piece. Is that the way you wanted to tell the story of Udham Singh?

Nationalism has to be rational. You need to know what is right and what is wrong. There is a fictional part I created, where just before the day of the assassination, Udham gets drunk and goes to the Free Speech Park in London and has this long soliloquy. All alone, he speaks his mind about all that was happening and what was going to happen. He himself was not totally sure about whether he was right or wrong. He was talking to himself.

Even in jail, when he was asked if he hated the British, he said no; he hated the cruel imperialism that Britain represented in India. He was not a killing machine. I also needed to clear a concept that many of us have of our revolutionary freedom fighters. They were reasonable, logical people.

The world is still struggling with the question of who is a revolutionary and who is a terrorist. This film also wanted to talk about this. The film had to be a slow-burn, because it was based on such an event. I did not fully know how to tell the story. It kept evolving as we went along.

It is the first period piece that I have made; and I did not have the luxury of a “Bollywood budget” at my disposal. But nevertheless I had to create the world of the 1930s. I put in a lot of pre-production work, and used all the experience I have acquired over the years to pull it off on my frugal budget. But I did not want the period aspect to take over the screen and kept the focus on Udham. My main idea was to capture what was going on in Udham’s mind.

Also read:Shoojit Sircar on Mrinal Sen

In an earlier conversation, you had told me that during the making of Pink you had Mrinal Sen’s Ekdin Pratidin playing at the back of your mind. What movie did you have at the back of your mind while making this?

Several. There was, of course, Gandhi. Then there were Django (1966), Django Unchained (2012), Che! (1969), and some movies on the Second World War. 

After so many awards, what does another National Award mean to you?

It just gives us a little more courage. A National Award is a little more prestigious and will perhaps make people want to go back and watch the film again. My team is delighted. But, the joy of winning a National Award for the first time is a little different.

Are you still playing football with the local boys in the morning?

Oh yes. I can’t live without that. I have a team I play with when I’m in Mumbai, and another team in Kolkata.

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