Sardar Udham: Shoojit Sircar and Ritesh Shah on the structure, treatment of facts of the ‘Who-How-Why’
The Right Choice with Devarshi Ghosh | A fortnightly column where screenwriters and directors explain their scripting process.
The life of Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh was one of the most colourful. Born in Punjab, Udham Singh worked with the US-based Ghadar Party, a movement of the Indian diaspora to overthrow the British. He is said to have been associated with Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. He traveled throughout Asia, Africa, North America and Europe for political campaigning, mobilization and jobs, including railroad work in Uganda, selling lingerie, by some accounts, as well as acting as an extra in British films. Included.
Udham Singh’s claim to fame came on March 13, 1940, when he shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer at Caxton Hall in London. O’Dwyer was the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919. O’Dwyer supported Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer in the killing of thousands of Indians who were protesting against the British at Jallianwala Bagh. policies and arrest of revolutionaries.
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Much of Udham Singh’s international spy-like life before O’Dwyer’s assassination, for which he was executed four months later, is obscured by a mixture of conflicting accounts from historians, newspapers and British government records. Unlike fellow revolutionary Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh did not leave behind a rigorous first-person account.
Shoojit Sircar’s 162-minute Hindi film Sardar Udham, starring Vicky Kaushal in the lead, attempts to understand this complex life with an unusual script structure. The film was released on 16 October on Amazon Prime Video.
The first 25 minutes of the screenplay, written by Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah, follows the mysterious Udham from his release from prison in India in 1931 to the murder of O’Dwyer nine years later. A long middle segment tracks his life in the 21 years between the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the murder of O’Dwyer. The final 40 minutes detail the horrors of April 13, 1919, which haunted Udham Singh for the rest of his life.
In an interview, Ritesh Shah and Shoojit Sircar discussed the writings of Sardar Udham.
Much of the film moves back and forth in time, putting together the pieces of Udham Singh’s life during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre till the end of the story. How did you arrive at this structure?
Shoojit Sircar: Shubhendu had built this structure from the very first draft, which was finished eight-nine years ago. All my trouble was that the film should not just be about Udham, but what Udham thought and felt about freedom and rights. Ritesh crafted the script, elaborated the dialogues, humanized the story. For example, we don’t approach Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary seen in movies till now, but [as] A friendly young boy.
Ritesh Shah: The facts were already given to me, but we were looking for the truth. I had an English language script, with all research material highlighted and photocopied. I was hooked, not in an esoteric way, but to connect the inner bridges of mind, emotion and thought, to extract the usual didactic ‘dialoguebaazi’ you see in patriotic films and to give the script a certain lyricism.
The scene in which Udham gets drunk and talks of free speech was rewritten several times. The night before the shoot, Shoojit suggests that perhaps instead of giving a direct speech, he brings up Mir Taqi Mir’s poems.
The traditional format for this kind of film is going with a ‘who-why-how’ structure. We went with ‘Who-How-Why’ because it is this ‘why’ that is the biggest driving force for the venture. ‘Kaun’ is famous as a ballad. We know the ‘how’ from the available research material. But the ‘why’ is bigger than everything so it was natural to put it at the end.
The inquiry was a good means of telling the ‘how’. We didn’t realize that the film saw Udham through a Western prism, because the questions he is asked by the police and his lawyer are also with us: What did he do in all these 21 years? Why did he wait so long to kill O’Dwyer? Why did it take him six years to pull the trigger after arriving in England? Most of his time went into re-organizing the revolutionaries and re-running the freedom movement abroad, according to Bhagat Singh’s letter.
It was always the middle that bothered me. There was a lot. One day, I will write the scene of Churchill meeting the king. The next day, I’ll be wondering if I should keep it? But nothing was happening in the void, right? There was a world in which Udham Singh was operating.
What research was involved in this?
Government: We had the statements of survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Hunter Commission report and the Congress probe into the incident, Bhagat Singh’s own writings, books written by professors of Panjab University. Nigel Collett’s book was The Butcher of Punjab. There were also many books in Hindi and Urdu. We had the archives of the Tribune newspaper.
We didn’t have many books on the hustle at that time. We had records in the last four months between the shooting at Caxton Hall, prison time in Brixton, courtroom records and then the last days at Pentonville Prison. His life before that was put together by articles from here and there.
Shah: When people came to know that we are making a film on Udham Singh, some survivors and relatives came to inform. The film begins with 1931, but before that his life was wider, being associated with the Ghadarites internationally. What to include and what not in the film were decisions made in relation to concerns about the length of the film and what is most influential. We could have made a web series, maybe, but when we started working on the film they were not in vogue. Just as Udham’s journey was destined, so it was our destiny to tell this story in the form of a film.
Let’s talk about what is dramatic in the film, for example, Udham Singh and Michael O’Dwyer’s conversation, or perhaps, his romance with a girl back home.
Shah: Michael O’Dwyer was an interesting character. He was Irish but had no sympathy for the Irish Republican Army. There was firing on his house. He grew up with a disdain for communists, nationalists and any kind of revolutionary movement. Forget humans in India, he was cruel to horses too. Everything he says in the film is really backed up, even in the dialogues that he speaks while talking with a fuss. His views on India and his decisions regarding Jallianwala Bagh are well documented. Every dialogue of the film is related to reality. If Bhagat Singh says that he will watch a Charlie Chaplin film when India becomes independent, it is only because an article in the Tribune mentioned that he was fond of Chaplin.
Now Udham was hired by O’Dwyer and did he have that conversation? In addition to the final days of the hustle, the past years provide a lot of conflicting stories, as with the research in this film. Some historians say that Udham was present providing water on the day of the massacre. Some say he was not. We thought he was, but it was Baisakhi day, and we figured that a person who wasn’t quite political at that age would probably sleep through the day, but it’s possible that he saw something that night that stopped Yes with him for the rest of his life.
Government: In fact, there are accounts of some survivors, such as Attar Kaur and Ratan Devi, who recall that young boys with lanterns helped carry the bodies to the hospital at night. Maybe Fussy was one of them.
Shah: In some places, we read that Fuss was employed by O’Dwyer. In fact, Udham said that he had the opportunity to kill O’Dwyer when he was a worker, but argued that if he had killed him, Indian workers in England would no longer be trusted. He approached O’Dwyer as a salesman, not for pens, but cigars. It is documented that he polished O’Dwyer’s shoes, went on fox hunting.
Now what did they talk about on a particular night? We don’t know. What O’Dwyer says in that scene is based on fact. The question Udham asks him is exactly what we thought he could have asked O’Dwyer.
And then, there is mention of British Communist Eileen Palmer’s conversation with Udham Singh. The spelling of Palmer varies from place to place. As far as the Punjabi girl’s house is concerned, we read that there was one such girl. From the material we find, we magnify some moments to reach the greater truth. He is now said to have been with a Mexican woman, but will that incident add to the film?
He used to have a picture of Bhagat Singh in his hand. We felt that this cannot be just an appreciation of his writings. They must have met. Even his fondness for laddoos has been documented. What you find in the movie is well sequenced. It’s the gray area between the facts where the film lies, but facts are facts.
We didn’t even want to spoon-feed the audience. We think viewers can watch it, read for themselves, find out what is IRA, and if someone makes a web series tomorrow, they are welcome.
Unlike many Indian freedom fighter films, Sardar Udham does not shy away from highlighting the communist background of some of these revolutionaries.
Government: All the writings of Bhagat Singh are. He was influenced by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. If we had hesitated, Udham Singh would not have been Bhagat Singh. It would be disrespectful not to show it.
Shah: Also, at that time, all these movements converged at one point or another. Udham was as much inspired by socialist ideas as it was by Madan Lal Dhingra, whom you would probably call right-wing today. Bhagat Singh and Gandhi may have had different ways but they were fighting for the same reason.
Government: It is not that I am promoting any ideology through the film. As long as there are rigid social structures and there is inequality, the fight for rights will always be there. We don’t have to go out of our way to make this story contemporary.
The investigating officer of O’Dwyer’s murder is shown to have a change of heart by the end. Udham Singh’s question about what he was doing at the age of 23 seems to be the trigger for that change.
Shah: It is on record that Udham was not speaking during the interrogation. He once spoke when he expressed surprise that ‘Jetland’ (British politician Lawrence Dundas) had not died. After that he again spoke in court. But we thought, he must have said something in the middle. And this guy is asking her these simple questions. We wondered what could break his silence. He is asked about Bhagat Singh. And the obvious response of the entrepreneur would be to ask whether the person opposite them is even qualified to ask.
Udham Singh maintains a gloomy, gloomy, monastic disposition over the course of 21 years, which we see in the film.
Government: Yes, it was done intentionally. He smiles only twice. Once he is caught. And once, when he is pleasantly surprised that Eileen Palmer knows Bhagat Singh. We felt that if someone at the age of 19 or 20 sees a tragic incident like Jallianwala Bagh, then maybe you will not be able to rest in peace.
All film stills courtesy of Rising Sun Films/Kino Works.