Shoojit Sircar’s long marinated movie ‘Sardar Udham’ is now served

Mayank Chhaya-

I do not review works of art. In some ways reviewing amounts to second-guessing the creator. Having been one myself, I think it is a futile exercise. This short piece is also not a review of Shoojit Sircar’s ambitious Amazon Prime movie ‘Sardar Udham’.

Mayank Chayya

I am not going to tell you what the plot is other than saying that it is about Udham Singh (1899-1940) who harbored a wish to assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, a lieutenant governor of Punjab under whose watch the gut-wrenching Jallianwalla Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, and then assassinated him in London. It is best that you watch the movie to understand all the plots and subplots on Amazon Prime. I am sorry if you do not have a subscription to it. In that case, the movie does not matter.

With that out of the way, it is obvious that Sircar has marinated this movie for so long in his mind, apparently for 20 years, that he wants all of it to be shown the way he has accrued it creatively for that long. That is both problematic and rewarding. Problematic because not everyone might feel as close to it as he did and rewarding because he manages to do a great deal of that with considerably cinematic flair. Hands down it is the best Hindi or Indian movie in so much as it involves exceptionally high production values and remarkable recreation of an era. For that the credit ought to go to Mansi Dhruv Mehta and Dmitrii Malich.

Add to that consistently outstanding cinematography by Avik Mukhopadhyay and you have the best-produced period film of India with a few honorable exceptions such as Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj ke Khildai’ and to some extent Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’ catching some of the same general era.

Another minor point that I tweeted about is it is one of those rare Hindi films where the English characters do not look like British budget backpackers traveling through India and picked up by a casting director to save a buck or ten by offering them free vada pavs. They are not the usual caricaturist buffoons of Hindi movies.

‘Sardar Udham’ is quite atmospheric and moody early on, particularly a mist-laden Punjab or a fog-laden London or a harrowingly cold Russian countryside. The color palette and color gradation are excellent and they completely work. It is good to see that Sircar has not saturated the look of the film in the often garish traditions of regular Hindi films even while managing to offer brilliant lighting.

I have given two frames here to illustrate my point.

Interestingly, while watching some of the scenes, particularly as they build up to the assassination, I was reminded much of the 1975 movie ‘Operation Daybreak’ about the assassination of Nazi SS General Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. That film was shot by Henri Decaë. I would be interested to know if Sircar has watched that film. Of course, Sircar’s movie is much better shot.

‘Sardar Udham’ simmers for the better part of the first two hours out of its total watching time of two hours thirty-five minutes. There are detours and non-linear references to broader geopolitical issues. In a sense, it can become an acquired taste but then all art is an acquired taste.

Shoojit Sircar has set the benchmark for Hindi/Indian cinema for recreating a historical period which I hope other filmmakers live up to. Whether the film works in its entirety is a matter of very personal taste. It generally worked for me although I can see how many might just switch off soon after the assassination early on.