The Diluted Revolutionary: Bhagat Singh in Hindi Cinema

Shoojit Sircar’s “Sardar Udham” is the latest in a long line of Bollywood portrayals of the Indian freedom fighter, but the first to delve into his humanity and nuanced politics.

Meher Manda

November 30, 2021

The Diluted Revolutionary: Bhagat Singh in Hindi Cinema
Amol Parashar in Shoojit Sircar’s "Sardar Udham" (2021) (Amazon Prime)

“There are conditions to being called a proper revolutionary. No one can become a revolutionary just like that,” says firebrand Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh (Amol Parashar) in Shoojit Sircar’s latest film Sardar Udham (2021). “You can’t be biased. You can’t be communal. You can’t be casteist. There is no class among revolutionaries.”

The Bhagat Singh of Sardar Udham is the latest in a long line of cinematic portrayals of an Indian freedom fighter whom the British executed at the young age of 23: Rang De Basanti (2006), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) starring Ajay Devgn, 23 March 1931: Shaheed (2002) starring Bobby Deol, Shaheed-e-Azam (2002) starring Sonu Sood, Shaheed (1965) starring Manoj Kumar, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh (1963). In an industry fascinated with India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, Singh’s valor attracts cinematic attention equal to that toward Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Sircar’s Sardar Udham, however, chooses to depict Bhagat Singh differently. In this film, for one, Singh is a supporting character in the story of Udham Singh, who undertakes a mission to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. During the tragic event, British officers opened fire on a peaceful congregation of civilians, killing and injuring thousands of men, women, and children. Udham covertly traveled to England to assassinate Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre. That said, Bhagat Singh still looms large in Udham’s story: Udham carries a photograph of Bhagat Singh in his wallet, and in scenes featuring Bhagat Singh, Udham dissolves into the backdrop as a face among many looking to Singh for guidance.

And what a figure Bhagat Singh cuts out to be. Unlike other depictions, the Bhagat Singh of Sardar Udham has a lightness apropos to his young age and countenance. When someone asks about the first thing he would do upon release from jail, Bhagat Singh says he will watch a Charlie Chaplin film — he was, after all, a moviegoer — buy expensive British wine, dance with an English lady, eat roti, and enjoy a restful night of sleep. Sircar’s Bhagat Singh is both a sophisticated political thinker and a young man of good humor. And yet, a perusal of other Hindi films on Bhagat Singh’s life would have you believe otherwise.