Vicky Kaushal Talks ‘Sardar Udham’ and Getting Into Character
The Bollywood hero on the intensity and mystique of the Indian revolutionary that he took on for his latest film
Vicky Kaushal, 33, is more than just a talented `outsider’ who has made it as a Bollywood A-lister. He is also, like Ayushmann Khurrana, an unlikely Bollywood hero. Kaushal hasn’t had to run around trees to burnish his marquee potential, nor has he had to pander to the box-office with offerings of videos where he sits with a man-spread in a blingy hoodie, lip-syncing rap inanities while all around him shapely booties shake.
Yet, Kaushal has to his credit what’s considered an oxymoron in Bollywood — the 2019 film Uri won him a national award for best actor and, according to industry estimates, earned nearly Rs 289 crore in India, and Rs 342 crore globally.
It had its share of critics and cribbers, including this reviewer, because Kaushal, who is known to spend a lot of time preparing for a role, had given jingoism a catchy phrase — “How’s the josh?” — that Prime Minister Narendra Modi liked and used more than once.
Vicky Kaushal is sharp, intelligent and doesn’t get ensnared easily by journalists. During the interview over Zoom, he paid attention to all questions, was animated, fun, warm in his responses, and deft at tackling googlies.
Sardar Udham, Kaushal’s 14th feature film where he plays the titular role, dropped on Amazon Prime on Saturday.
Written by Ritesh Shah and Shubhendu Bhattacharya, and directed by Shoojit Sircar, the film had to make do with a few facts and lots of imagination.
Not much is known about Udham Singh nee Sher Singh, except that he was an orphan born in Punjab in 1899, who later joined the Ghadar Party and was influenced by Bhagat Singh. Some reports say that Udham Singh and his friends were serving water at Jallianwala Bagh on that fateful day in 1919. But there’s little proof of that.
What is known for sure is that 21 years later, on March 13, 1940, Udham Singh shot dead Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of Punjab who had presided over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
The film tries to cradle Udham Singh’s rage even as Shoojit and Vicky Kaushal weave together a character whose motivation — shown in brief episodes and outbursts — is affecting, but his modus operandi remains mysterious.
Sardar Udham has beautiful, aesthetic sets crafted with arty, colour-coordinated palettes of blues and sepia. It uses mist, vintage cars, charming tweeds and hand-woven sweaters to recreate an era that has the glow and aura of romantic nostalgia, but not much edgy grit. A lot of scenes are set in England with English actors and, thankfully, the accents are clipped and propah, even if the delivery is, at times, theatrical.
The film, which toggles between young revolutionary Udham Singh in Punjab and then travels with him to England, carefully places events to gather moral and emotional power as it approaches that day in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh — April 13, 1919 — when Colonel Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed, peaceful gathering.
That is the film’s high point, its blood-soaked and gut-wrenching pièce de résistance. It scratches a wound and leaves it gaping, raw. And as you walk out of the film, heavy with emotions, you wonder about the psyche of the Sikh community and rage that can burn for 21 years. Excerpts:
RS: Hello! Congratulations on the release of your film.
Vicky Kaushal: Thank you, ma’am.
One of the things that I am intrigued by is how you prepare for each role you play… You do it quite intensely.
I try and do it quite earnestly… Different roles demand different kinds of prep. Sometimes it’s more a physical prep when it comes to a film like Uri… where the simple brief from the director, Aditya Dhar, was that even if you’re standing with 80 other commandos and I have a still image I should know who’s the leader of the group… If you see Masaan, for me that world of Deepak Chaudhary was completely alien — be it speaking in Kashi (dialect), be it understanding the mindset of a person who’s only been burning pyres since (he was) a child. So, I had to spend a lot of time in Benaras…
In Raman Raghav 2.0 I had to really explore the dark corners of my heart to get that sense of isolation because unlike the character I had a very protected childhood. I did not have any problems with my father or with my family that I was holding against those figures…
On this (Sardar Udham) there were two aspects: There was first, obviously, the physical prep because when you’re playing a 20-year-old, you have to drop down a lot of weight. Because when we saw the archival pictures of Udham Singh, when he was in his 30s and 40s, he was a big, burly guy with a big broad face, so I had to put on a lot of weight to get that kind of heaviness and heftiness on me. I had two months to drop 15 kilos for the 20 year old and then 25 days to bring it all back up…
Apart from that, it was more to do with mental prep to kind of understand the state of mind of that person. Because the one brief that I had from Shoojit Da was that ‘Vicky I just want people to get into the state of mind of Sardar Udham. It is not about his actions; it is not about what he did. It is about what he felt, how he thought, what his ideologies were, what he was trying to say… Unless you feel that I won’t be able to see that.’
That was more important, that was more challenging to me… to understand a person who could be holding that pain for 21 years after experiencing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
And how did you do that?
My process started with completely emptying my cup… I had to tell myself that I don’t know anything… When you’re an actor, what tends to happen is you get the script, you read a scene… you get visuals in your head, that, okay, this is how I will perform, this is how I will portray. There’s always a plan of action as an actor. I had to eradicate all of that because it was so important for me to respond to my own instincts at that moment, between action and cut…
This was that film where I could not plan it in my vanity van that this is how I will give an expression, it was not about the expression, it was about really, genuinely feeling… and letting that come across.
The style of Shoojit Da’s filmmaking with the story is also that, he is staying with a lot of silences. He’s not using the crutches of words and dialogues to tell the audience that this is what this guy is feeling…. At the same time, he wanted to keep the mysteriousness of this character — who is he, what does he think… So, for that I had to really rely on my impulses and my instincts… I really had to just internalise everything and be in that moment. It was simple and complicated at the same time… Between action and cut I had to isolate myself from my own world and come to this world in a more internal, emotional way.
How did you do that? How do you place yourself emotionally in?
By trying to just be there, by trying to just genuinely respond to the geography around me, to the actors around me, to the clothes that I’m wearing, to the things I’m saying, to the props I’m touching. To genuinely, genuinely be there…
Did you visit Jallianwala Bagh?
I had visited it when I was a kid and when I was in college… It’s not like Jallianwala Bagh was an alien thing to me… I have gone there; I have rubbed my fingers on those walls where the bullet marks are…
Jallianwala Bagh is so poignant, that space… I understand when you say that you visited it long back and yet there’s a piece of it inside you. It just never goes away.
It can’t. You know, belonging to a Punjabi family, we have been raised with these folklore stories about Jallianwala Bagh, Sardar Udham Singh, Shaheed Bhagat Singh. My ancestral home in Punjab, where I go every year, is just two hours’ drive from Jallianwala Bagh. I mean, culturally… it’s in my roots… I don’t need to actually go to Jallianwala Bagh to revisit it, make it fresh. It’s fresh, it’s always, perpetually fresh in my heart.
There isn’t much archival material to see how Udham Singh walked, talked, so…
Yeah, unfortunately we don’t have any video references to see how he walked and how he talked… A lot of what you see (in the film) was based on our imagination. But we do have some archival pictures of him… When he was taken out of Caxton Hall after the shooting which came in the papers the next day. From there we at least understood that in London he used to wear suits and hats and he was clean shaven… There is one image of him doing langar seva in Shepherd’s Bush gurdwara in London… There is one passport photo of him in his full Sikh avatar, with a turban and dadhi-moonch… so that we’ve incorporated into the film.
He was just such a mysterious character… If you read about Sardar Udham Singh in different books also, none of the books say there is evidential proof that this was the case. Every book says that we have heard that Udham Singh did this, that Udham Singh was that… The only proper evidential proof of his existence is in 1940 when he shot Michael O’Dwyer at Caxton Hall… then (we have) the letters that he used to write in prison, his court hearings, the speeches that he made in the court hearings, and then he was hanged. This portion, these three months of his life are the only three months of his life that are with evidence… Otherwise, it’s like a folklore story about this Phantom character… (who was) spotted in the US, in Germany, Russia, who went through Kashmir and Afghanistan, used names like Frank Brazil…
You spoke about what goes into preparing for a role, and you said that you have to be in that space when the director says “action” and get out when the director says “cut”. But is that really possible?
No, if you’re shooting every day, it’s not possible. You can consciously decide ki, okay, now it’s pack-up and you’re going back to your hotel rooms, to your own world, and tomorrow again you’re gonna come back into this world. Consciously, you know that, but subconsciously there’s always a part of that world traveling with you. It is impossible to leave that, just impossible…
So, do you become a little dysfunctional in real…?
There is a little disorientation to your own behavior which gets spotted by people closest to you. Like my mother… I have this habit of calling her first thing in the morning and ending my day with a call to her. So, whenever I would call her… if I’ve gone through an intense experience, she would earlier question it, ‘Why are you being so silent? Why are you so off?’ Even I didn’t have the answers because it was new to me, because I never realised that subconsciously something is shifting… But now I understand and now she also understands.
Right. Playing all these characters and staying with them for so long, does it also keep changing Vicky Kaushal?
I would say it keeps evolving me rather than changing me, and not just as an actor, but also as an individual… It’s rather difficult to keep a trait of a character because we keep jumping into different worlds all the time… I mean, I could be playing a freedom fighter and then going into a completely different role… and it’s my job to give a 100 per cent to that character also… So, the trait of the character sometimes doesn’t stay back as much as the knowledge you got out of that world… You’ve got a different perspective towards life, towards certain concepts.
My biggest takeaway which is going to be there with me the whole life from this film (Udham Singh) would be his perspective on freedom and equality. Here is this person who was young and these guys, Sardar Udham Singh, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh, they never spoke about freedom for just Indians. These were global citizens, they believed in freedom for each and every person in the world… For me that thought is a revelation because we have been conditioned through our history books and through our upbringing that freedom is when India is free, or you as an Indian are free. Why just India? …That’s what Sardar Udham Singh gave me.
And that’s on the other end of the spectrum, from Uri, right, which is very nationalistic, very…
Correct. But when you step into the shoes of an Army guy who has to do the job of pressing the bullet and actually taking lives… there you don’t have the option of thinking in such a liberal way (gestures, making large round circles with his hands and speaks in a mock ‘liberal’ voice), ‘Oh, it’s about the world and we are global citizens…’
It’s his dirty job to go there and be in a position where you will have to take lives… He has to fuel his troops in a different way. When they’re going for a mission where they might not come back to their families, when it’s about them pressing the trigger, where either it’s going to be him having breakfast the next day or this guy, you have to choose your own people… it’s a very different position to be in. And that’s what I keep understanding as an individual when I get to play a part in Uri, or Sardar Udham… It’s not as simple as black and white, you know.
Interesting. So which character has been the most difficult for you to get away from?
I think Masaan. It was very difficult, and I’ll tell you why. Because there was so much goodness attached to Deepak Chaudhary that for me, that is who I want to become on a human level. The innocence and purity that Deepak Chaudhary had, the way Deepak Chaudhary loved a girl. You know, that is what I aspire to be.
What do you mean?
Just that kind of purity and innocence is very difficult, you know, in the digital era you live in, where you get bombarded with information… you have to be on top of your game and everything… The kind of purity that Deepak Chaudhary had, the simplicity that guy had, it’s very pure, very old school…
The sense we get, ‘we’ as in the audience, when we watch you, is that you are an old soul…
I am, I am and it’s probably because I’ve lived Deepak Chaudhary, because I constantly, constantly aspire to be that old, old soul.
What about before that?
I’ve been a very, I mean, I come from a very simple middle class family, my schooling, my upbringing, everything happened in the 3 km-radius around my house… I’ve not been a teenager who wanted to go partying outside and going to clubs… I have been a very basic guy, a very old school guy all my life…
But, to answer your question, what was that one character that was difficult to leave would be Masaan‘s Deepak Chaudhary because I never wanted him to leave me.
What about getting rid of a character… You know, Dilip Saab went into this whole therapy after Devdas, so I’m wondering if you, who prepares so much for roles?
Mine was actually Raman Raghav (Anurag Kashyap’s 2016 film, Raman Raghav 2.0, where he played a cop chasing a serial killer)… I was so wanting to get out of that darkness that the moment Anurag Sir said, ‘Pack up and it’s a wrap’, I remember me and Nawaz bhai were walking to our vanity vans and we were giving high-fives to each… we were like, ‘Jaan chutti,’ matlab, we were in itna dark spaces in the past 21 days we were shooting, and we were completely going cuckoo in that dark space… we were wanting to get out of it.
About that scene in Sardar Udham, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It sounds very banal to ask how was it, but tell me a bit …
It was, firstly, physically exhausting because those bodies that I was picking, there was not a single dummy body, you know. Each and every body, be it a 45-year-old human being or a seven-year-old child, I was picking up, was real… And what you see in the film is just an edited version, a portion of that… There was a lot (more) of carrying in and out… So physically very, very taxing, but at the same time it was very numbing…
We knew that we are reenacting a situation. But to physically be there and see that kind of… bloodbath was a numbing experience more so because constantly you couldn’t help but think that people actually went through this… 20,000 people were actually on the receiving end of a battalion who kept shooting at them till their bullets were done… they had nowhere to go, they were just caged there, and they were getting fired at. And they were children, grandparents, pregnant women, they were just unarmed people running for their lives… That used to be very numbing, that used to really make me silent, make me kind of feel tired from inside even if I was not doing anything physical.
You have and are playing so many real-life characters. Uri, Udham Singh and next you’re going to play Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw (in Sam Bahadur) , which I’m very excited about. I want to see your nose first…
And the accent. Do you feel the burden of carrying these icons of India? Also, how are you preparing for Manekshaw?
For Sam the prep is going to start in a very short time. Me and Meghna (Meghna Gulzar, who is directing Sam Bahadur) keep jabbing about Sam and constantly keep sharing stories with each other, and there are so many lovely, lovely videos out there that you get to see and you feel, man, they’ve really stopped making men like him. The way he used to speak… He really was a man in his own league, you know. The kind of sass he had, the kind of charisma, naughtiness he had and of course that leadership quality that he had was unmatched. I really can’t wait to just play it. It’s gonna be probably the toughest role that I will take up because there’s going to be the challenge of talking like somebody and walking like somebody and not just somebody but Sam Manekshaw… It’s a big, big, big responsibility…
Are you living with Parsis now?
No, not right now. But I’m pretty sure that once I start properly prepping for that film I will have to.
Do you live with any self-doubt?
All the time. I am yet to go through a film experience where I have not come out of it feeling that I could have done better.
100%. Always. It is on a daily level. In fact, I shoot something, and I come back and I have a shower and when I’m going to bed I feel… [he leans back, and with his head resting on an L he has made with his finger and thumb, narrows his eyes, as if going into flashback] Essssssssssss, you know that moment, I could have done better, that scene I could have done this way… It’s constant, constant…
Tell me one moment from Sardar Udham where you felt that…
They are very, very small moments… There’s a moment where, Udham Singh meets Michael O’Dwyer for the first time and he is selling a pen to him… and he comes out of there and is kind of having a moment… When I see it in retrospect, I feel ki, there were more possibilities… There’s nothing right, or there’s nothing wrong… You can play it any which ways… At that moment I felt like responding that way… But you just keep thinking…
That must make watching yourself very difficult?
The first time it’s very difficult, because when you’re watching the film for the first time, you’re only watching yourself… and you are like, ki, kuch nahin aata hai mujhe and you’ve done a very bad job and you feel very scared.
You said something very nice about the concept of freedom and equality which you’ve draw from Udham Singh. And in Uri, while your point about soldiers is taken, there was a certain politics around the film that many found, well, not very palatable.
But about the politics of this film. I want you to comment on it, what you thought…
When it comes to the politics of this film, what I think we are trying to say is that he wasn’t a killing machine… What we’re trying to say is, here is a revolutionary… not a revolutionary because he picked up a gun… A revolutionary becomes a revolutionary by his thought process, by what he was trying to say. And that’s why we feel it’s still relevant because… (Sardar Udham) is not the biopic of a human being, it is a biopic of his ideology.
And there’s that whole dialogue between your character and Bhagat Singh about revolutionary aur terrorist mein kya farak hai…
Correct, correct, which is very beautifully written and explained by the character of Bhagat Singh which Amol Parashar has played… You know revolutionary is somewhere attached to doing something extreme… violence. It’s not that… Violence should not be the option. It is what the ideology is, it is what you’re trying to say that should be passed on to generations ahead.
So I take it you like the politics of this film?
I’m in sync with the politics of this film.
Watch the trailer for ‘Sardar Udham’ below. Stream on Prime Video here.