The Pulse | Society | South Asia

Sardar Udham Singh, the Oscars, and Colonial Amnesia

Why is it unacceptable for an acclaimed Indian director to capture the violence of British colonial rule and the anger Indians felt toward colonial repression?

Sardar Udham Singh, the Oscars, and Colonial Amnesia
Credit: Facebook.com/SardarUdhamFilm

Shoojit Sarkar’s movie “Sardar Udham,” which is based on the life of an Indian revolutionary who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, the British colonial official responsible for the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, has stirred controversy in India. The jury selecting India’s official Oscars entry rejected the critically acclaimed film; the decision has stoked heated discussion in the country.

Justifying the decision to reject the movie, a jury member said that the movie was “a little lengthy” and had “a delayed climax.” These are fair criticisms.

Another jury member pointed out that the movie “projects hatred towards the British.”

“In this era of globalization,” he said, “it is not fair to hold onto this hatred.”

This is an untenable explanation for the movie’s non-selection for submission to the Oscars.

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The story of Sardar Udham Singh epitomizes the yearning for freedom and vengeance against colonialism. The movie is based on real-life events and captures lived experiences. It does not “project” anything as much as it aims to “recollect” a period in India’s history that saw coercion, violence and bloodshed — most of which was colonial.

As the conversation over the legacy of colonialism unravels around the world, it is vital that Singh’s story be added to this conversation. For this reason, the film adaptation of this unsung Indian revolutionary’s life story deserves an international viewership and, more importantly, international recognition.

Claiming that the movie is “projecting hatred” is linearly reorienting the narrative the movie is aiming to capture. The intention behind the phrasing falsely creates a representation where the filmmaker and film are projecting animosity toward a subject that seemingly does not deserve these projections.

As India’s influence grows globally in different domains, arts and culture has become a dominant part of its soft power export. It is imperative that the production of Indian media, especially that which touches upon the history of the South Asian’s (tragic) colonial connection with the West, does not become amnesic about the realities the region’s people endured.

The jury’s explanation that “it is not fair to hold onto this hatred” in “this era of globalization” suggests that this interconnected, globalized world has absolved former colonial powers of responsibility for their actions. In essence it protects them from any criticism. It is critical to understand that globalization is by no means a 21st century, post-cold war exercise. It is a phenomenon that is deeply entrenched within the colonial periods that saw the industrial revolution and cementing of exploitative trade routes, and forced cross-border migration in Asia and Africa.

The intention behind rejecting this “hatred” against the British is evidently to take a friendlier position on India’s current relations with its former colonizers. Nevertheless, this position yields nothing given that the British, in much academic discourse as well as on film, fail even to mention the role their empire played in robbing India of its resources and oppressing its people into famine, destitution, and slavery.

The Oscar-winning movie, the “Darkest Hour” (starring Gary Oldman), romanticized and celebrated Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s endeavors in World War-II without once mentioning what sponsored these endeavors and how great a cost Indians paid for the British war efforts. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” another Oscar-nominated movie, captured the heartbreaking and tumultuous phase of World War-II the British faced on the French coast of Dunkirk. The otherwise well-made movie has one unforgivable historical flaw: it does not portray the role that exploited Indian and African soldiers from Britain’s colonies played in that episode of the war.

If they refuse to acknowledge their colonial past and the exploitation they heaped on the colonies, and if Indians reject our recollection of the same, who does this amnesia benefit? And where do we go from here?

This entire episode strangely echoes the sentiments expressed by Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor of the exchequer of the British government. On his visit to Tanzania in 2005, Brown said that “the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over … We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologize for it. And we should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world. Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values.”

Much can be said about the values and legacies the British impressed upon India. However, the the movie seemingly projecting “hatred for the British,” and not being “fair” cannot be a criterion for the movie’s worth for international recognition.

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Movies with clear centralized political agendas, primarily focused on colonial histories, have been made in part as a response to the films of the West, glorifying Western military exploits and negatively portraying Arabs, Russians, and even Indians along the way. It would be seemingly unfathomable for anyone to question “American Sniper” receiving all the Oscar nominations it did because of its portrayal of “dusty” “violence hungry” Afghans.

Why, then, is it unacceptable for an acclaimed director like Shoojit Sarkar to capture the violent colonial rule of the British as well as the anger Indian revolutionaries held against this colonial repression?