ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Topicality of Historicals

Reading Sardar Udham

The non-linearity of the memory recall in Sardar Udham makes a strong case against the tyranny of linear history.


The historical film, as a genre, is often used as a vehicle of distinct political ideologies by film-makers who appropriate histories and mythologies to suit their agendas. Popular cinema has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of historical films and biopics made in recent years. And India’s freedom struggle has emerged as a popular trope. In these films, freedom is a notion built around carto­graphies of nationhood, ignoring the humanistic concerns that defined the age of Enlightenment and, later, that of ­modernity. Concepts like free will and equality are disregarded in favour of a regressive conception of nationalism. It is in this context that Sardar Udham (2021)—the story of a revolutionary as a person who fights for human dignity and liberty—becomes significant. The biopic about the revolutionary freedom fighter Udham Singh starts as a journey into the personal, where the psyche of an idealist, a solitary being, is traced through scattered events in his life. The film abandons linear narration and adopts a pattern of shifting back and forth, which emerges as its strength as a historical narrative.

Prasenjit Duara, in his polemical work Rescuing History from the Nation (1997), explores the intimate relationship between the modern nation state and nationalism on the one hand and linear evolutionary history on the other. He traces a linear teleological model of Enlightenment history that allows the nation state to see itself as a unique form of community. Duara argues that linear history denies intelligibility to the people without a claim to it, and the need for linearity produces the condition that enables modernity as a possibility. The non-linearity of the memory recall in Sardar Udham itself makes a strong case against this tyranny of linear history and its pitfalls. In times when the cinematic representation of history often seems to reiterate dominant cultural ideas and value systems, the historical film as a genre has increasingly become a pastiche of different conceptions of the world—where the present take on cinematic representations of the past is based on the mobilisation of Hindu nationalism, where the postcolonial nation navigates ideological and affective transitions while building an imaginative past to substantiate a right-wing claim over history. Films like Padmaavat (2018) that seek to historicise mythology can be cited as examples in this context. But Sardar Udham presents a non-linear view of history through the life events of a revolutionary. Travelling through memories and events, the film is a subversion of discourses on war and revenge narratives that are peddled as historical films in recent times. There are no loud war cries or jingoistic nationalist pleas; the viewer is taken on a subtle, painful journey, a patient yet determined pursuit, a martyrdom that is not about the aggressive male warrior but about a hopelessly romantic idealist who has absolute faith in the humanistic values of communism. Sardar Udham proposes a possibility of a radical revolutionary politics without glorifying the nation state, underscoring the potential of cinema as resistance.

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Updated On : 14th May, 2022
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