It was almost two decades ago that filmmaker Shoojit Sircar first visited Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Back then the tragedy, which had left several hundred protestors dead at the hands of the British government troops in 1919, shook him in an unexplained way. And for the next few years, he kept returning there on the occasion of the massacre’s anniversary. Sircar wanted to do something around Jallianwala Bagh. But he neither had a story nor money to make a movie. Twenty years later he could achieve that dream through Sardar Udham, his latest release starring Vicky Kaushal in the lead role.
“The film means a lot to me as to who I am—what happened in Jallianwala Bagh shook me. The freedom came at a big price, so it was my responsibility as a filmmaker to not just narrate the story but also convey the ideology of what Shaheed Udham Singh and Shaheed Bhagat Singh believed in,” says Sircar.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Kolkata, Sircar was excited talking about one of the unsung freedom fighters of India. Sardar Udham has been critically acclaimed though a small controversy erupted over its rejection as an Oscar entry from India. But Sircar is unfazed and would rather talk about the research that went into the film than the needless jury decisions. He says, “Who am I to pass a judgment? I can express what is true and then it depends on the people to do what they feel is right.”
Sircar knew a film on a lesser-known historical character won’t be easy. His aim was to make it without any loopholes. “When you are working on a film based on a revolutionary who has been part of the independence movement, and also on the politics and ideologies of that time, you have to be responsible for what you are doing,” he says.
Sircar, however, confesses that he was able to play with the character “as there was not much information available” about Udham Singh. “To be authentic and remain close to the facts was our biggest challenge. We had to work around with limited photographs, letters, small anecdotes, and a few survivor stories. It helped us to stitch together the story.” The pace and the format of the film have also come under scrutiny. A lot of people told him how it was non-linear, and was going back and forth. However, he says, “I feel the same because that’s how I found Udham Singh to be, while I was trying to find him, understand his mindset.”
Sircar wanted the under-represented hero to get limelight. While there are several movies on Udham Singh’s more famous contemporary Bhagat Singh, there were none on him. “So I wanted to shed light on this man, who, I believe was an avenger, a hero, a revolutionary, and a philosopher.”
The challenges didn’t stop at the scripting stage. Sircar had conceptualised the film keeping late actor Irrfan Khan in mind. Then he had to find a replacement. “It was not an easy thing to move on with the project after Irrfan Khan’s death. Vicky met me and showed interest in the film. Then I realised that there’s something about him. He wanted to learn and know more, and he had an eagerness to surrender. All that made me believe in him.”
Sircar, who has helmed acclaimed films such as Vicky Donor and Piku, is also one of the first few filmmakers to spearhead a trend that encourages big movies to release directly on digital platforms. “It’s not easy to make films on your own terms, especially when there’s a market that decides what works and what won’t. I have always ensured that I am not compromising with my integrity and that has been a challenge. But I am blessed as people have backed my ideas so far,” he explains.
He has no qualms over films releasing on OTTs and believes there’s space for everyone. “After my great experience with OTT during Gulabo Sitabo, I was not worried about releasing Sardar Udham on Amazon Prime. I knew it will get more viewers here. Moreover, OTT platforms are a gamechanger in every possible way. It has opened gates for new actors and directors. It’s going to co-exist with theatres.”
An actor you would want to work with next?
Your other dream project?
Your best film?
‘Shoe Bite’, but it didn’t release
If not a filmmaker, what profession would you have chosen?
What comes to mind when I say Amitabh Bachchan?
A 14-year-old kid
Will there be Vicky Donor 2?
Home and a family
Does box office matter?
Not my department
What about critics?