Synopsis – Based on an incredible true story of the Battle of Saragarhi in which an army of 21 Sikhs fought against 10,000 Afghans in 1897.
My Take – Yet another year, and yet another nationalist film from Akshay Kumar. Well I am not complaining exactly, as Akshay Kumar‘s films have has the right amount of fictional and entertaining touches that gratify the pan-Indian audience, but as a fan, I cannot be the only one who sees that they are becoming nearly impossible to differentiate one from the other despite their premises.
Here, Akki clamors to another nationalism song once again by returning to history once again with writer Girish Kohli and popular Punjabi director/co-writer Anurag Singh, who marks his return to Hindi cinema, following the 2007 disaster, Raqeeb. Touted as the bravest battle ever fought in India history, it is quite surprisingly to realize how long it took Bollywood to display the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, fought between the British Indian Army’s 36th Sikh regiment comprising of 21 soldiers and an army of 10,000 Afghani invaders. But, as they say, better late than never.
Supposedly compared by historians to the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small Greek force faced a large Persian army under Xerxes I in 480 BC (the premise of Zack Synder directed 2006 film, 300). In both cases, a small defending force faced overwhelming odds, fighting to the last man and inflicting an extremely disproportionate number of fatalities on the attacking force.
While comparisons between the two big screen adaptions, at least based on the technicalities can be considered prejudiced, however it’s the screenplay that makes the film fall short of becoming an epic action extravaganza. Yet, I wouldn’t call this a shoddily made film, instead it’s quite engaging, as Akshay Kumar’s stellar screen presence and inspiring VFX just about manages to take you back to 1897.
The story follows Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar), an Sikh Indian soldier in the British army who is stationed in the Khyber mountains, and spends most of his time chatting up with fellow soldier, Gulab Singh (Vikram Kochhar) or simply day-dreaming about his wife, Jeevani Kaur (Parineeti Chopra), while planting seeds around the barren land.
However, when Ishar disobeys direct orders from his dictatorial British officer by interfering in a punishment carried out by a bunch of local Pashtuns led by Mullah (Om Rakesh Chaturvedi) on Gulwarien (Toranj Kayvon), an Afghani tribeswoman, he is transferred to take up charge as the Saragarhi post as a punishment. Ishar arrives at the fort to discover a rag-tag bunch of soldiers who look anything but war-ready, unaware that the Pashtun tribesmen coerced by Mullah are planning a massive attack to capture Saragarhi, which acted as a signaling post between Fort Gulistan and Fort Lockhart, with the intention of cutting off all communication between the two forts.
Despite being low on ammunition and receiving no reinforcements, the 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army led by Ishar Singh have no option but to put up a strong fight, until reinforcements join in.
The first half runs at a more mellowed pace and devotes more screen time to the supporting characters and their psyche. One soldier is a grumpy hothead with a tragic past whilst another shines his shoes spotlessly clean for it is a gift to his father. If one soldier is away from his six-month-old daughter, another has been grappling with caste discrimination all his life. It is these little emotional touches – a letter from the family, a pair of shoes carefully preserved – which strike a chord.
This tiny details about them works very well during the battle sequence, where their lives are dangling between life and death and we desperately root for them to come out of it triumphantly. One of the film’s hilarious yet poignant stretch involves a punishment meted out to the soldiers by Ishan Singh for lacking discipline. It is the second half is where the wars begins and it’s a complete emotional ride, where you sympathize throughout, mainly due to the fact that the Indian army is exponentially outnumbered, the threat feels more real and the small victories feel more gripping.
The attention to detail is so spot on in the set pieces, creating a time and place with much accuracy. The film beautifully chronicles the valor of Sikh pride without resorting to jingoism. On the contrary, the film defines Sikh pride with a touch of compassion. Though the film is set in the 19th century, its commentary is extremely relevant at a time when religious fundamentalism is on the rise. A mullah instigating the Pathans to attack the infidels in the name of religion is questioned, as the mullah admits that religion is nothing but a weapon of instigation in times of unrest.
On the plus side, the action sequences are fantastically conceived and executed, and the VFX is on par with global standards.
But virtue doesn’t win wars, and the film spends too much time building up Ishar’s credentials as an all-round good guy. Even his relationship with his wife is told to us in flashbacks is hardly developed enough to be of any interest. In the first half, director Singh stretches proceedings interminably, and by the time the actual battle starts, the audience are is likely to be too jaded to actually enjoy the well-choreographed fight scenes.
Even the attempts at humor fall flat, and there are several times where you feel that the script could have been tighter. The British, like in most films, are shown as silly barbarians who love to humiliate Indians for fun. There is another sub-plot featuring an effete sniper who, for reasons unknown, wears bangles and nail polish but has the best aim in the land. Stranger still, we never find out who this mysterious man is, or why he is out to kill Ishar and his men.
What’s pricked me the most here is how the film has shown 21 Sikhs battle against 10,000 Afghans merely on the basis of chest thumping patriotism. If they had shown the Sikhs use some intelligence and guile, it would have seemed less straight forward. The ‘fiery’ climax after Ishar’s death is also quite absurd.
However, the performances are quite excellent overall. Akshay Kumar is the proverbial glue that holds his regiment and the film together. He effortlessly switches from the emotional scenes to the high-intensity war sequences. Most importantly he looked the part. He surely looked as someone who could take on a thousand warriors himself. Parineeti Chopra has barely any scenes to speak of.
The actors who played the soldiers of the regiment, lend more energy to the war sequences whilst exuding warmth in the film’s initial portions. Kudos to each one of them. In a small role Toranj Kayvon manages to leave a mark while Om Rakesh Chaturvedi, brilliantly underplays his role. On the whole, ‘Kesari’ is a stunning looking war film, which despite its flawed writing deserves a watch for its brave tale.
Directed – Anurag Singh
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 150 minutes