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Bollywood Often Gets Patriotism Wrong, But Not With ‘Sardar Udham’

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A period film that revolves around freedom, patriotism and nationalism, Sardar Udham, before all else, speaks to us on a level of humanity itself.

No Anthem, No Flags: How Sardar Udham Regulates Its Nationalism

The film brings to us a revolutionary; a revolutionary due to his experiences. The film is as interested in the freedom fighter as an individual as it is in the revolution he strived to move towards. It doesn’t reduce individuals to generalities or distil their complexities. It tells a story of an individual, his ideologies and his view of the world that rely almost solely on his experiences. This dialogue is proof.

Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham Singh. | Rising Sun Films
Vicky Kaushal in Sardar Udham. Photo: Rising Sun Films

“Revolutionary kehlaane ki bhi shartein hain. Aap biased nahi ho sakte, communal nahi ho sakte, casteist nahi ho sakte. Revolutionaries mein class nahi hoti. Sabse importance cheez hai equality. Har insaan ko barabar samajhna, aur humanity mein vishwaas hona chahiye.”

(Being a revolutionary comes with its rules. You can’t be biased, communal or casteist. Revolutionaries don’t have a caste. The most important thing is equality- treating everyone equal and believing in humanity)

No waving of the flag, no anthems playing in the background and no vigilant and violent sons of the soil– just the depiction of the sacrifice of one man, among millions of others. Sardar Udham brilliantly regulates its nationalism. It doesn’t carry its patriotic sentiments the way other films have before.

It allows those feelings to come to oneself, not from a place of hatred for someone or something but from a place of compassion for fellow individuals. Along the way, it depicts the transformation of a 20-year-old in the middle of his most carefree years into a man with a single, life-consuming purpose.

In doing so, it shows the revolutionary business to be quite a lonely struggle, afflicted with self-doubt. The lead character in the film isn’t shown to be out for revenge or glory. The assassination of Sir O’Dwyer is his symbolic act, against an oppressive regime to whose actions, it isn’t just he who has lost and he knows that. While it does make a hero out of one man, it doesn’t fall into the same old tirade of vilification of communities.

A lot of responsibility comes with trying to create a period film that resonates with individuals on the levels of their innate humanity and their national identity. Sardar Udham attempts to live up to the expectations arising from the responsibility. It tries to build a nuanced view of India’s colonial past from the perspective of one changemaker. It doesn’t dwell on hatred towards individuals or groups but the system of oppression that exists.

It is almost natural that I’m left wondering: how many films in India have made such attempts in recent years?

Of ‘Creative Liberties’

Films about India’s past are often preceded with a disclaimer:

“The Film has been created by the makers of this Film by taking creative liberties and dramatizing the events for cinematic expression. Therefore, the Film should not be construed to represent a true and accurate depiction of historical or actual events that transpired.” 

Among the lines that anyone rarely ever reads, lies an element that always ought to be scrutinized– the “creative liberties” taken for cinematic “expression” in our movies that represent our history. While a film like Sardar Udham also relies upon such disclaimers, the extent of its reliance is far less than what we have seen before it.

These disclaimers are important because any expression of art must have space for creative interpretation. But, in my understanding, these disclaimers are also used to misinterpret history and create a nationalist, alternative version of it.

A Resurgence Of Period Films

Recent years have seen a resurgence of period films in India. Bollywood films may not always seem to be politically motivated but their ideological nature is always evident. Films of the past, like Naya Daur, Shaheed and Ardh Satya, though diverse and from different eras, were most often reflections of India’s independence struggle and the need for socialism, equality and secularism for progress. Such ideas seem to be redundant, in both the current political climate and our cinema. 

Society has changed and with that, the interpretation of patriotism has also shifted- much like our films. 

The Afghans are depicted as wicked, religious-minded individuals with eyes thickly lined with kohl, frequently using words such as ‘jihad’. A still from Padmaavat. Photo: Screenshot from YouTube

Period films of recent years, such as Panipat and Manikarnika among many others, reflect a much more muscular idea of nationalism rather than what it was some years ago.

It gets tricky because this view of history propagated by the movies, in one way or the other, helps shape public opinion. A majority of the public accepts what is being served to them through cinema, taken to be the absolute truth to our history.

Take Padmaavat.

Based essentially on an epic poem, it attempts to show the existence of queen Padmavat, when the subject has been up for debate among historians. On the other hand, it portrays a ruler known to be a fierce man but a reformer and able administrator, in Alaudin Khilji, as a night-marish barbarian who cares for none and does as he pleases.

These films then also end up adding emotional values, both negative and positive, to characters, communities, and societies. 

Misrepresentation Of History?

Most movies cater to their times and the audience.

The religious tint of certain movies comes with the deliberate inability to see territorial and political conflict as exactly that. Instead, in my opinion, what we get is the representation of political and territorial motivations as religious ones.

Akshay Kumar’s Kesari puts such a religious spin on a conflict that took place in the 19th century. While the Battle of Saragarhi was a territorial battle between 21 men of the 36th Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army and thousands of Afghan tribesmen, in my opinion, the film subtly gave way to a narrative that made this particular conflict a battle of faiths. 

The Afghans are depicted as wicked, religious-minded individuals with eyes thickly lined with kohl, frequently using words such as ‘jihad’. A movie that could have been about a legendary last stand ends up being a depiction of a confrontation of faiths- a perception not from the past but the present.

 Such movies end up propagating ideas that place them firmly in the present and further embolden questionable ideologies. 

Akshay Kumar’s Kesari puts such a religious spin on a conflict that took place in the 19th century. A still from Akshay Kumar’s Kesari.

The Two Sides Of Stereotyping

When it comes to propagating beliefs through cinema, what we see often are generalisations– about various religious groups, ethnicities and communities. Stereotypes have been propagated through cinema for decades now.

On one hand, the portrayal of Muslims in Bollywood since independence has undergone many transformations. While it began with generalising all followers of the faith as righteous individuals, it has ended up on the other end of the spectrum in recent years.

Muslims these days are subjected to negative stereotyping in films. Nowadays, Muslims are often framed as heartless and uncivilised individuals in movies such as Padmaavat; as militants or terrorists in films like Baby; or as societal problems, within well-constructed war and conflict stories.

On the other hand, Bollywood movies have, for the longest time, stereotyped the entire Sikh community as either fierce patriots or as eternally cheerful individuals. While the latter isn’t seen often in period films, the former can be seen in many of them. Recent films such as Kesari and older ones like Border and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha make the presence of such stereotypes evident.

 Most people don’t consider a stereotype as one unless it is outrightly nasty and hence, overlook the positive stereotyping that exists. Objections are hardly, if at all, raised, at least in India, when positive qualities and superior virtue are constantly attributed to persons from minority groups. Even if the intent of such portrayal is backed by a fondness for that social group, it still ends up creating unrealistic and embellished perceptions of communities, or simply put, exoticizing an entire community.

Both positive and negative stereotyping in cinema rob us of nuance and context. While one dehumanises individuals, the other creates unrealistic and utopic standards for individuals– both paint a picture that hardly anyone can relate to. Consequently abetting projecting communities as a “them”– an identity different from that of “us”


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Creating ‘The Other’

The truth is history is not simple– it is complicated and layered. It cannot be broken down to ‘this vs that’ or ‘us vs them’. But such portrayals can very easily lead to creating an ‘other’. While Muslims are categorized as “them” and presented as a threat to “us”, the portrayal of Sikhs seems to be a sugar-coated form of othering, a manifestation of our inability to see that community as “one of us”. 

Such stereotyping reduces individuals to a patchwork of terrible characteristics that they could not possibly relate to. It not only twists history to suit the narrative one wants to put forward but also crystallizes it in the minds of viewers, creating this sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in our daily lives.

Such representations have created a political culture where debate is largely formed by appeals to the emotions of the masses rather than connecting with details of our history. Re-enactments of history make the audience believe that they’re witnessing the actual past. Alterations of history like the ones we have seen have created detrimental alternative narratives to history. 

The very scale of cinema and its audio-visual power can change a narrative forever in the public consciousness. But, in the current form, they’re further emboldening narratives that can be called, as a bare minimum, problematic. 

It is said that with great power comes great responsibility, and, at present, our cinema exercises its power in all its might but the responsibility somehow almost always manages to elude it. 

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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