Movie Sardar Udham: The Horrors Of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Shown Unsparingly!

One more biopic on the life of the Indian revolutionary freedom fighter Shaheed Udham Singh, Sardar Udham, which differs refreshingly from the other biopics, perhaps three movies already made over the decades, in terms of narration and storytelling. The film is directed by Shoojit Sircar (or Sarkar), an Indian filmmaker very well known for several movies, particularly the lovely and critically acclaimed Vicky Donor (2012), Piku (2015) and Pink (2016).  The film was slated for theatrical release on the day of Gandhi Jayanti, October 2, 2020, but had to be postponed indefinitely due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, Amazon bought the distribution rights and premiered it on Prime Video on 16th October, 2021. Over the last few days the movie has earned tremendous appreciation from the viewers, and of course mixed reviews. The fact of the audience lapping up the movie is a very healthy trend, because it is made without the present-day loud patriotism with dramatized high-sounding dialogues, jingoism and hatred for any particular community. The director, instead, wants to delve into the personality of Udham Singh, played very sincerely by actor Vickey Kaushal of Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), Sanju (2018) and Uri (2019) fame, and builds up a very human character who regrets the waste of his lovely youth, but carries on the fight to free his country from the shackles of the British imperialism which he considers an evil and has to be destroyed, but without spreading hate or even hating the British themselves. Structurally, the film is in a non-linear format, with intermittent flashbacks or parallel storytelling which perhaps hurt the narration a little as far as the viewers are concerned. But we’ll return to his point later.

For the first time on the screen, at least for this writer personally, the horrors of the incredibly barbarous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13th April, 1919, were shown unsparingly, brutally and in graphic details for nearly thirty minutes which, surprisingly, come only in the last hour of the two hours and forty minutes long movie. Although some critics object to such lengthy display of gore, the immensity of the tragedy that happened during the Indian freedom movement justifies this—both for a realistic treatment and that it formed the determined resolve in the mind of a young Udham and changed his life. This massacre was planned by Michael O’Dwyer (played by Shaun Scott), the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who believed in his own ‘fear is the key’ philosophy to crush the movement by instilling a mortal fear in the minds of all the freedom fighters in India. To give effect to this he assigned a like-minded commander Reginald Dyer (played by Andrew Havill). In between 6000 to 20000 people, including women and children, gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh garden on that fateful day in a form of peaceful democratic protest, not knowing the demonic plans of the British Raj.


General Dyer selected the military regiments, considered to be the most loyal to the British, and entered the garden around 5.30 in the evening through the main gate with soldiers ready with loaded rifles. It was said that he wanted to bring in the armored vehicles with machine guns, but due to the narrow gate it was not possible. The Jallianwala garden was surrounded by buildings and walls on all sides and the other four gates were permanently closed, leaving only the main gate for a possible escape that was blocked by Dyer’s forces. Curfew was already sounded in the city of Amritsar. The people gathered there looked at this unexpected intrusion standing up murmuring to each other. General Dyer, without issuing any warning to disperse, ordered the forces to open fire. The hail of bullets continued for ten minutes till the ammunition was reportedly finished. People ran hither and tither desperately trying to escape, but there was no exit. Even the people climbing the walls to get out were brought down with bullets. Many of them jumped into the well there, now called Martyrs' Well, in a bid to avoid the relentless hail, and later it was reported that more than 120 dead bodies had been recovered from the bottom of the well. The ruthlessly inhumane General and his forces left the premises leaving the injured also to die as there was curfew in force and no medical facilities were arranged.


Young Udham planned to sleep that day which he told to his sweetheart Reshma the previous day, but Reshma said she would definitely be going to participate in the protest. Indeed he was sleeping the whole day when fleeing people told him about the horrific incident. He jumped up immediately and ran to the site of the tragedy, initially calling out for Reshma. Then he heard the pitiful sounds of groaning and painful cries coming from the injured in the vast array of the blood-soaked lying bodies, and engaged himself instantly in rescue work: first he carried the injured on his shoulders running to the hospital and coming back again. To make the rescue work faster he arranged a hand-pulled wooden cart to carry the bodies and asked a few of his pals to join. Their constant calls ‘koyi zinda hain?’(‘anybody alive out there?’) in discovering the still alive people were heart-wrenching. The rescue work continued till Udham nearly collapsed out of exhaustion and some of the injured survived while some others succumbed in the hospital. This 30-minute long scene is one of the most powerful depictions of a historical event in world cinema. During that time a subordinate asked a relaxing stern-faced Dyer if the curfew were to be lifted. Dyer ordered him to lift it only after 8 in the morning so that the dead could be cremated or buried. This makes it clear that both O’Dwyer and Dyer wanted everybody assembled there to be killed in pursuance of the ‘fear is the key’ policy.


Udham never found his Reshma, and the tragedy made him a revolutionary joining Shaheed Bhagat Singh who deeply influenced his thinking and life. The film opens with a scene in 1931when Udham was released from a jail and the local police keeping a constant watch over him afterward. However, a determined Udham escapes to a remote village and then through a series of journeys covering USSR and Germany in various aliases of Sher Singh or Frank Brazil or Udham Singh or the like and with forged passports, finally arriving in London. He was possessed with only one objective—to end the evil imperialism in the form of Michael O’Dwyer. The story is told like a modern-day thriller and we should not spoil by saying more.


As we said the format of the movie is non-linear, shunting between the past and the present very often, and this, though effective in narrating a story in an engaging style of treatment, it in some places does hurt the viewers in terms of understanding the happenings clearly. For example, his journeys are never explained in details—only showing his trudging, sometime through jungles and sometime through the snow super where the super of ‘USSR’ appears and then a Russian lady curing him of exhaustion in a private place. Perhaps the actual details of his travels are not available. He arrives in London, his passport showing the name of Sher Singh and is allowed to clear immigration which is a little perplexing as the movie shows a scene where a cable was sent from Punjab to the Scotland Yard about a suspicious freedom fighter in the same name.


The assassination of Michael O’Dwyer happens in the first 30 minutes of the movie, and we come to know of Udham’s character—his aim, his obsession and determination— only during the investigation by the Scotland Yard with barbaric physical torture, about his operational strategy in London with some Indian and even British associates. We also come to know only during the investigation by a rather sympathetic detective and a chat with a symbolic defense lawyer that he got himself familiarized with Michael O’Dwyer and even worked in his household as a domestic cum drive where he had numerous opportunities to kill him after knowing that the old officer still did not regret the massacre and justified the action of both Dyer and himself in the realization of his policy of ‘fear is the key’ to crush the movement. I feel the storytelling should’ve been linear at least after his arrival in London, creating a taut build-up to the final assassination on 13th March, 1940 in Caxton Hall, London. Further, reference to his several visits to England is left unexplained. The freedom movement in India and the leaders are not shown in details except for some stray scenes with Bhagat Singh. The movie could also have been trimmed a little by avoiding some of the graphic scenes of torture which were only to be expected in their own kingdom of England when an outsider kills a top British commander.


The film made a brief reference at the end to the Hunter Commission that actually condemned the action by Dyer making him ineligible for further posting in India. Dyer got ill soon afterward and died in 1927—the movie has a scene earlier where Udham looks at the tomb of Dyer remorsefully. In all, the film is very engrossing despite its length even as the viewers can well bear with the treatment in a non-linear way, and the recreation of the places in those days, particularly Punjab and London was immaculate and powerful performances all around. In the very brief court scene Udham Singh made a speech highlighting his fight against an unjust imperialistic domination of his country and his fight, as per the ideals of Bhagat Singh, is hate-free, not aimed at any community or caste or religion including the British people—he is only a freedom fighter trying to free his country and the people. That brief speech, without dramatics, sealed the case with his hanging ordered. As we said earlier this is highly relevant for the present times. And, only after that the scene of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre came, as described by Udham Singh in his death cell to the sympathetic detective. During investigations to the repeated questions about his real name finally Udham Singh gives the name as ‘Ram Mohammed Singh Azad’ which is and remains to be extremely significant. A must for theatrical release, sooner or later. 

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre that killed around 1500 people including women and children and hundreds of wounded still remains a raw wound for India as after more than hundred years the United Kingdom is yet to render an official apology for the barbarous act. Further, notwithstanding the justified policy of ‘fear is the key’ the ghastly incident only strengthened India’s freedom movement leading to the non-cooperation movement in 1921-22 led by Gandhji and even the otherwise appreciating or loyal Indian citizens of that time turned against the British. Finally, as we all know, the British empire had to ensure India’s freedom on 15th August, 1947.


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