Shoojit Sircar, who was born and brought up in Bengal, has a distinct Punjab connection. Quite a few of his friends are from Chandigarh and Patiala. He even went to a Delhi University college named after Shaheed Bhagat Singh. His breakout film Vicky Donor revolved around a Punjabi family. And now, Punjab is also the place that gave Shoojit the idea for his upcoming movie Udham Singh starring Vicky Kaushal.
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About 20 years ago, just after college, Shoojit visited Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds of protestors were shot dead by British government’s troops there on April 13, 1919. It is one of India’s famous tragic sites. “It’s a place with a vibration. If you are familiar with what happened there, it touches you. It touched me during my first visit. I could never get out of it,” recalls Shoojit, “For a few years, I visited the place on the anniversary of the massacre. On those occasions, it reminded me of Auschwitz. A lot of people would sit beside the wall and cry. Most of them were elders... I didn’t know who they were. But those visuals stayed with me.”
He didn’t have a story, he didn’t have the money, and he didn’t have the actors. But the young graduate somehow knew he wanted to make a film on Jallianwala Bagh. He probably didn’t know then it would take him two decades to make it.
Now, the idea that Shoojit has been nurturing all these years has finally sprouted into Sardar Udham. Udham Singh was one of the few people who survived the tragedy. 21 years later, he went all the way to London to assassinate General O’Dwyer, who as Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor sanctioned the killings. Shoojit’s film traces the journey of this relatively little-known revolutionary.
There are quite a few movies on Udham’s more famous contemporary from Punjab: Bhagat Singh. It is also one of the reasons Shoojit wanted to make a film on Udham; to shed more light on this man, who, he says, is seen as an avenger, folklore hero, revolutionary, and a philosopher.
Sardar Udham is Shoojit’s first biopic. To make a film about real people and events, he says, was tricky. His fictional characters are based on people he has met or known. In a way, they are more accessible to him than Udham, whom he has never met and can never meet. “It was difficult to get to know the character, to have conversations with it, to break it down,” he says.
There wasn’t a lot of information available about Udham. He had to piece together his story from the fragments found in Hunter Committee Report (on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre), news articles, essays, and documentaries. After gathering as much information as possible, Shoojit had to then weave his fiction around it.
“Since he is a martyr, we should also be careful of how we are going to project him. For example, what he wore on a particular day can vary. But his sensibilities, his morals and values, his philosophy must not be wrong.”
His writers, Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, were of great help in this regard. “We jammed well. They are my college friends. We have done theatre together. So, there was harmony in our understanding.”
Another challenge was to recreate the places and times. But he told his art directors Mansi Mehta and Dmitriy Malich and costume designer Veera Kapur that “nothing should shout out.” Shoojit likes to keep his films realistic and restrained. It also means that Sardar Udham , a biopic of an Indian martyr, won’t have scenes or shots of chest-thumping jingoism.
Irrfan Khan was supposed to play Udham. “I wanted a cerebral actor to play him. Who else than Irrfan?” But after his passing away last year, the role went to Vicky Kaushal. “I liked Vicky from Masaan. I needed someone who can be receptive to my idea of this character. And after listening, he adds his own touch to the portrayal. He also looked convincing in the different ages of the character.”
Sardar Udham , in a way, is the first film Shoojit conceived. How did it change over the years?
“I have evolved as a person. A lot of people complain that my films have become slower. That’s because I have become slower. But this slowness gives me more control over the character or subject or the theme that I am doing. All this time has helped me nurture the film better.”
It also makes for a nice parallel. Shoojit had to wait for two decades before he could make a film, on a man who waited for two decades for his revenge.
‘Sardar Udham’ will be on Amazon Prime Video from October 16