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'Bodies lay strewn in Jallianwala Bagh for weeks'

August 28, 2023 10:44 IST

'A lot of what you see on screen, particularly the night of the massacre, is pretty close to what really happened as it is based on survivor stories.'

IMAGE: Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham.

National Awards are not new for Shoojit Sircar.

His debut directorial, em>Vicky Donor, won the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.

Now, Sardar Udham has bagged five!

"The National honours gives me the courage to tell more such stories that I think need to be told," Shoojit tells Senior Contributor, Roshmila Bhattacharya.

Sardar Udham, a film really close to your heart, has been adjudged Best Hindi Film at the 69th National Awards.
It has also bagged awards for Best Audiography - Re-recordist of the Final Mixed Track (Sinoy Joseph), Best Cinematography (Avik Mukhopadhyay), Best Costume Design (Veera Kapur Ee) and Best Production Design (Dmitrii Malich and Mansi Dhruv Mehta).<br

Given that the film could not get a theatrical release because of the pandemic and had to stream on OTT, which was a novelty even for me, it's an honour that it has been accepted and acknowledged on a national level.

Also, through a common man, it speaks about the ideology of a revolutionary, makes a case for freedom of expression through the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which became the fulcrum of all revolutionary activities after April 13, 1919.

The National honours gives me the courage to tell more such stories that I think need to be told.

The technical awards are well deserved as a lot of the post production work was done remotely, which must have been a huge challenge for a film of this scale.

I have always believed that cinema is a collaborative art.

So many creative minds, both artists and technicians, come together for one idea and work towards bringing the vision to the screen.

To see some of these departments being felicitated is heart-warming.

I had never done a period film before Sardar Udham, never thought that I could recreate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

I could do it only thanks to my technical crew.

Technology also came to our aid during the lockdown and we could sit in one city and work online with technicians in another.


IMAGE: Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham.

Given that the film never reached theatres, will you plan a limited release now that it has bagged five National Awards?

At one point we were thinking along these lines. Now the National Awards gives me the leeway to initiate the talk again with my producers Ronnie Lahiri, Sheel Kumar and Amazon Prime.

Not a bad idea, I will give a re-release serious thought because undoubtedly, a big screen experience will be unparalleled for a film like Sardar Udham.

The period drama reached a huge audience across the world through Amazon Prime. What kind of reactions have you got from outside India?

The reactions have been diverse and one in particular stands out.

Some friends in the UK recommended it to other British friends and they were shocked to learn that Brigadier General Dyer had fired on unarmed people who had gathered at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh to peacefully protest against the Rowlatt Act and the arrest of two activists.

When I assured them that everything was based on facts, they were ashamed that an incident like this, that they had known nothing about, had happened in the past.

IMAGE: Shoojit Sircar directs Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shoojit Sircar/Instagram

Children have been going to Jallianwala Bagh as part of school excursions for years. Now, having seen the massacre unfold on screen, are they seeing the historic garden and memorial in a new light?

Yes, I think the film has been a revelation to everyone.

To recreate the massacre, I had read a lot of books, essays and commissioned reports.

For 20 years, since 2000, I have been going to Amritsar and meeting survivors.

A lot of what you see on screen, particularly the night of the massacre, is pretty close to what really happened as it is based on these survivor stories.

But the only visual representation available of what happened after the firing was Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, some of which I replicated in Sardar Udham.

It was still new because many from the present generation have not seen the Oscar-winning Gandhi.

If what you saw on screen is disturbing, let me tell you that in real life, bodies lay strewn in Jallianwala Bagh for weeks.

Daily curfew was imposed in the city and the situation was scary.

People didn't sleep for days.

I will never forget the haunting images of Udham carrying the wounded bodies.

Or the images at the end, of a joyous imagined meeting between two friends, Udham and Bhagat Singh, in heaven, after they have sacrificed their lives for our country.

I hope not just children, but everyone else will now see Jallianwala in a new light.

It was a bravura performance by Vicky Kaushal who brought Udham Singh to life.

Yes, it was a huge challenge for Vicky to play both a 19-year-old teenager, enthusiastic about life and love, and a 40-year-old revolutionary who lives to avenge the massacre.

It helped that he is from Punjab because every family there hero-worships Sardar Udham and so he understood the depth of the character.

I shared with him how I was introduced to Jallianwala, and every little anecdote and information I had gathered over 20 years.

I poured it all into Vicky's mind, wondering if he would be able to translate it all on screen, till I saw him on the set the first day.

I saw not Vicky Kaushal, the actor, but a very young Udham with a thin moustache and the beginnings of a stubble.

After that the transformation was magical and beautiful.

IMAGE: Shoojit Sircar chats with Irrfan Khan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shoojit Sircar/Instagram

The film was conceived with Irrfan Khan as Sardar Udham, but illness prevented him from playing what was a dream role for him too. Both Ronnie Lahiri and you have dedicated the award to him.
Do you see Irrfan smiling from up there?

(With a wry laugh) Irrfan deserved everything he got, and so much more.

This would have been his time. It's unfortunate that he is no more.

We should dedicate everything to him.

How much do you miss him as a creative collaborator?

Most of the work I will be doing now was conceived with Irrfan in mind.

He has definitely left behind a huge vacuum which is impossible to fill.

Is another big-scale period drama on the cards?

(Laughs) That's a difficult question to answer.

I am thinking of something but it is in the initial stage yet.

Vicky Donor, Piku, PINK have all won National Awards. Was the reaction different every time?

The first time, with Vicky Donor, I was over the moon, followed by the pressure to live up to the honour.

The acknowledgements for Piku and PINK brought a sense of responsibility rather than the pressure of expectations.

There was pleasure and pride too because in terms of prestige, the National Awards are right up there.

As far as Sardar Udham goes, I'll be honest, we were expecting something.

And these five awards feel good.

Now, there is no pressure, but the sense of responsibility remains.