Indian National-Award winning actor Vicky Kaushal, who plays a fierce freedom fighter who exacts revenge for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in his new film ‘Sardar Udham’, has opened up about how the movie brought out complex emotions and proved to be a challenge.
“This film put me in a dark space. For instance, when we were shooting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, I don’t think I have ever gone through a numbing experience like that as an actor. Nothing could have prepared me for that scene … But you start evolving and your horizon of understanding emotions and ideologies expand,” said Kaushal in an interview with Gulf News.
Hundreds of Indians were shot and killed by British troops while they attended a public meeting in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh complex. Historians pegged the episode as a turning point in India’s freedom movement against the British rule.
In biopic ‘Sardar Udham’, directed by Shoojit Sircar and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Kaushal plays the quietly anguished revolutionary who nurses a grudge against the man whom he believes orchestrated the killings and is responsible for his painful past — Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab, British India. More than two decades after the massacre, Udham famously shot down O’Dwyer, who had allegedly ordered Brigadier General Reginald Dyer to punish the protesters. This film chronicles this violent revolutionary’s journey, his political beliefs, and his subsequent trial after taking revenge.
The experience of working in a well-crafted project that reconstructed grim events was challenging, claims the ‘Uri’ star.
“When you explore such emotions as an actor, that experience stays with you, changes you and moulds you to be more grounded. It makes you more in sync with who you are and your instincts as an actor,” Kaushal said.
The reviews of ‘Sardar Udham’ have been largely flattering with several critics hailing Kaushal’s turn as the avenger as a career-altering milestone. Excerpts from our interview as we talk about his film, stepping into a role written for the late actor Irrfan Khan, and more …
I had to do a crash course in history and Sardar Udham right before this interview because I am not overly familiar with him. Were you acquainted with this iconic figure from the post-Indian Independence era before you signed this film?
That’s completely fine because not many people know about Sardar Udham and that’s why it becomes so important to tell this story of an unsung hero. In our 90 years of our revolt against the British Raj from 1857 to 1947, countless figures have given their lives for India’s freedom, and we know some of them, but we know don’t know about many others. It’s our moral responsibility to bring them out of our history books and chapters to our films. Then, we can realise the importance of their sacrifices and keep them alive in our hearts for posterity.
That’s a noble cause, but when you take on nationalist roles in films that are meant to stoke the Indian patriot in us, do you gain more popularity in Indian now?
I don’t think taking on patriotic parts is why you become popular. For any film, people need to connect to that story and if they connect with it then they want to know about the actor in it and that’s how you get popular. An emotion like patriotism is a very special emotion and if a film does tap into it, I will take a lot of pride in that. As an audience, I love watching patriotic films based on true events and heroes from our past. It’s the emotion which is attached to a patriotic film that makes us welcome those films and its stories.
Tell us more about the legwork behind playing Sardar Udham Singh, who’s a lionised figure in certain parts of North India?
Fortunately, since I belong to a Punjabi family, I was culturally familiar to the folklore of Sardar Udham Singh. But whenever I read anything about him in our history books — even if it’s a line — I would come back home and be curious about wanting to know more about him. Also, my ancestral home in Punjab is just two hours’ drive from Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar so I had a connect to his legendary stories. But for the process of understanding his state of mind while he was living his journey depended solely on the vision of Shoojit sir. He has been living with this story for 21 years. He came to Bombay [Mumbai] from Delhi to make this story. At that time, he had limited resources and limited knowledge. Also, many films were being made on Bhagat Singh and probably it was not the right time for him to tell his story. But now that we are bringing his story alive, I kept jamming with Shoojit sir to tap into the emotional state of Udham Singh and get to know his version of this freedom fighter.
What was fascinating about Sardar Udham Singh’s story is that he waited for long before exacting revenge. His rage and radicalisation simmered before it exploded. Some even describe him as someone like ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ as he could also be deceptive. His morality was often questioned too…
It was fascinating for me to be able to tap [into] this mysterious figure who kept changing identities, names and faces. No book about Sardar Udham is documented with full proof. It was never proven whether he did this or that. So, I had to draw a lot from Shoojit sir’s proper research based on the documents gather from Hunter Commission [the committee set up in 1919 to find out what happened at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre], archival documents and footages that chalked Sardar Udham’s journey. But it was difficult to play a character who was so elusive, but we had a fantastic research team who drew all possible information based on this person. But our quest for discovering Sardar Udham is never going to die. It will always be an ongoing quest even after we shot the film.
They say, one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist. At the end of the day, your character in this film assassinated Michael O’Dwyer. How do you make your character appealing?
When you watch my film, it’s clear that he was not some killing machine. Sardar Udham is solely remembered for assassinating Michael O’Dwyer but before that he has never shot a single bullet. His killing was a statement that he was making. He was looking for a platform to be heard, but what he was going through at that very moment when he shot him has gone with him. But we have tried to possibly knit together his state of mind. Our film is not just about O’Dwyer’s assassination. We are looking at Sardar Udham. The start of the story is from 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and his killing is not the culmination. Through his death, Sardar Udham wanted to say what his ideologies were, and he wanted to keep those beliefs alive.
What beliefs were they?
After watching this film, I want people to feel that there’s Sardar Udham in each one of us. You don’t become a revolutionary by just pulling out your sword or shooting somebody or throwing a bomb. Being a revolutionary is also about the thought process or ‘soch’ as we call it in Hindi. It was his soch that made Sardar Udham a revolutionary. You can be revolutionary by talking about climate change like Greta Thunberg or be a revolutionary like Elon Musk [CEO of Tesla] whose soch is about living on the moon. What makes a person a true revolutionary is how people remember them 100 years later. Through this film, I want to remind people to realise their inner Sardar Udham.
Bollywood legend has it that the late actor Irrfan Khan was meant to play this role. But eventually, the part came to you. Was it a big shoes to fill?
Firstly, it’s a matter of great honour to know that the role which belong to Irrfan sir has come to me after his unfortunate demise. It’s also a great sense of responsibility. About filling his shoes, I don’t think it’s possible for any actor, let alone me. Those shoes are too big, the quality is different, and he’s one of a kind. If I even managed one per cent of what Irrfan sir would have done with this part, I will feel that I have done a good job. Whatever I have done in this film is my small and humble tribute to Irrfan sir.
Don’t miss it!
‘Sardar Udham’ is out on Amazon Prime Video.