It was Baishaki and the occasion called for a celebration. Instead, there was bloodshed and violence. More than a century later, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre remains a symbol of imperial brutality and tyranny. This caused widespread anger, reverberations of which were felt all over India. Rabindranath Tagore renounced his title of knight in protest. Winston Churchill, an apologist for colonialism who once called Indians “beastly” in the wake of the Bengal famine, condemned the incident as “monstrous.”
Mahatma Gandhi, who coined the term “dyeing” to describe the actions of General Reginald Dyer in Amritsar in 1919, which killed 379 innocent lives and injured 1,200 others, was not in favor of retaliation. An apostle of non-violence, Gandhi had said, “We don’t want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer. Until the Amritsar Holocaust, Gandhi had never set foot in the Punjab. Recently returning from South Africa, the successful lawyer gained new insight into his home country by traveling freely in Indian interiors. In many ways, the horrific events of Jallianwala Bagh helped put Gandhi on the political map. Admitting that Gandhi was an “Empire Loyalist”, it was after the massacre, writes Ramachandra Guha in Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, that “his faith in British justice was shaken but not shattered.
General Dyer wanted this incident to “leave a moral impact and prevent mutiny” after the nationwide protests against Rowlatt’s Law. The Hunter Commission was set up to order an investigation into the shootings. Appearing before him, an unrepentant dyer showed no remorse. Gandhi (1982), winner of the Richard Attenborough Academy Award, recreates this episode. Attenborough captures the cold-blooded murders of Jallianwala Bagh on Dyer’s orders in some detail. A crowd of peaceful Sikh protesters gathered in Amritsar Park. Shortly after, Dyer enters, followed by the troop. The whirled heads spin and before you can blink it quickly escalates into a bloodbath. In fact, Dyer’s team fired thousands of shots. The unarmed crowd ran ruthlessly. Many scaled the walls while others, including women and children, jumped into the well. The injured were left unattended, lying there to rot and die. “How a child shot with a .303 Lee-Enfield asks for help,” asks an investigator. The tough Dyer, played in Gandhi by Attenborough’s regular collaborator Edward Fox, has no answer. Cut to Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) wearing a grave expression, unable to deal with the trauma.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre has since served as the inspiration for a series of Bollywood films, but never as a full topic. Ironically, in Manoj Kumar’s 1965 classic Shaheed, one of the scariest episodes in Indian independence history is notably missed. The catalyst of a young Bhagat Singh (Manoj Kumar) who motivates him to fight against the British turns out to be something more personal – growing up on the stories of his revolutionary uncle has left him with a lasting influence. In fact, it is said that a 12-year-old Bhagat Singh visited the site after the bloodshed and collected a mound of dirt in memory and remembrance of the British atrocities on Indian soil. While the appearance of the massacre in a film like The Legend of Bhagat Singh by Rajkumar Santoshi (2002) or Guddu Dhanoa on March 23, 1931: Shaheed of the same year should come as no surprise, the scene makes an unlikely appearance at the peak of Phillauri (2017). It is revealed in a flashback that the Spirit Shashi, played by Anushka Sharma, who haunts a modern couple, was actually a poet from pre-independent India. Her lover Roop Lal aka singer ‘Phillauri’ (Diljit Dosanjh) was killed in the Jallianwala Bagh incident, bringing their romance to a tragic end. A more or less similar device was used in Rang De Basanti (2006) by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, which follows a group of university students changing their minds after reliving the struggle for Indian freedom through a rehearsal of game. The story comes to life here, as the narrative bounces. In one scene, the friends (along with Aamir Khan, Atul Kulkarni, Sharman Joshi, Soha Ali Khan and Siddharth) discuss General Dyer in a dhaba in Delhi where the film is set. When DJ (Khan) says: “Hum bhi na barshadt karne mein champion (we were the epitome of tolerance)”, his mother (Kirron Kher) stumbles, reminding them of Udham Singh’s sacrifices. Called Shaheed-E-Azam, Singh shot Michael O’Dwyer in London to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. As Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, O’Dwyer had approved of Reginald Dyer’s actions in Jallianwala Bagh. Accused of O’Dwyer’s murder, Singh was hanged in London.
Vicky Kaushal, whose Singh biopic is set to hit theaters this year, has written about her experience playing the Revolutionary. “To portray a character is one thing,” the Uri star said. “But understanding their vision of the world, reliving their emotions is another. I don’t know how close I will get to what happened in your head and your heart. But I know that with every scene I play for you, something in me changes forever. Before Kaushal, Udham Singh was the subject of at least two Hindi films. One played Raj Babbar in 2000 and the other, Jallian Wala Bagh was made in 1977 in which Parikshit Sahni plays Udham Singh with Vinod Khanna in a supporting role as a revolutionary determined to oust the British. As Odham Singh waits for Michael O’Dwyer to finish his speech at Caxton Hall, Westminster on March 13, 1940, memories of the horrific Jallianwala Bagh parade before his eyes. Seething with rage, he pulls the trigger. The last words of the orphan Singh would have been: “I am not afraid to die. I am proud to die, to have to liberate my native land and I hope that when I am gone, I hope that in my place will come thousands of my compatriots to chase you dirty dogs; to liberate my country.
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