Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra
Director: Anurag Singh
At times, stereotypes are born out of fables and legends, and sometimes out of an act so brazen, so insanely brave that a community’s reputation, regard and prestige is forever sealed.
Though a blip in the “Great Game” that was being fought between Britishers and Russians in Central Asia for territory, the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi, in which 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment stood their ground against an estimated 10,000 Afghani tribesmen, guarding what has been described as a “modest post”, or a “picquet”, is one such act of collective bravery, and is considered one of the greatest “last stands” in history.
Defending what was essentially a stone and mud fort with a communication tower used to send heliographic messages — flashing mirrors — in Morse code to the two main forts, British forts, Lockhart and Gulistan, set about four-five miles apart on the Khyber Pass, all 21 Sikh soldiers died.
The Afghans attacked Saragarhi to cut off communication between the two forts, isolate and then attack them.
They began the attack on Saragarhi at 9 am on September 12, 1897, and the 21 Sikh soldiers, with their single-shot rifles and bayonets, held out for more than six hours, leaving, by some estimates, 600 Afghan tribesmen dead.
The fight to hold the fort for as long as they could was a suicide mission to give time for reinforcements to reach the other two forts. And they succeeded in their mission, but paid for it with their lives.
Each one of the 21 soldiers was awarded an Indian Order of Merit, the highest British gallantry award given to Indian troops then.
The story of Kesari comes from recorded history thanks to the messages relayed from Saragarhi Fort’s tower to the other two forts. But the enthusiasm to tell this story now is pivoted on the desire to align with the messaging of the current dispensation that markets war and military action as an opportunity for national glory, and as the cornerstone of India’s identity.
Having suffered sermons delivered around potty holes and sanitary napkins, I approached Kesari with much trepidation.
Writer-director Anurag Singh’s Kesari is a commercial enterprise that tells a stunning story in a compelling way. But simultaneously, Kesari seeks to serve an ulterior motive, a larger cause.
In retelling the story 122 years after the battle, it mildly distorts, mythologises, exaggerates and embellishes it to goad jingoistic fervour of a saffron hue, almost in unison with the shrill don’t-question-the-forces spiel we are hearing these days.
There’s an enemy — Muslims, and the soldiers are fighting for the gora bosses, and yet the film invokes religion, Sikhs’ honour and pagri, and creates bloody but iconic imagery that sells and seals military valour as the ultimate gift to desh ki mitti.
Kesari is a technically savvy, well-made film, and it has measured performances by its entire cast. Akshay Kumar is especially good. But, the film operates almost entirely in three modes — it is cute when it’s with the 21 Sikhs, angry when it comes face-to-face with foreigners, and lethal in its response when threatened.
In choosing to tell a story, and how it is told, there often lies a political agenda.
Akshay Kumar tells all his stories these days with a one-man, one-party audience in mind. And therein lies his fraud. His patriotic fervour seems calculated not just to boost box-office collections, but also to reduce the distance between him and the powers that be. That makes me cringe.
Kesari is split in two neat parts, with the first half of the film setting out the context, the politics, introducing the hero, and the second half is dedicated mostly to the battle.
The film stays true to facts to a large extent, but insinuated in the first part is a needless digression where an honourable Indian — Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar) — defies orders to save the life of a Muslim woman from barbaric Mullahs.
A small skirmish with a gora boss is also injected, to again create grounds for heroism and bravado. While the gora sahib insults, demands servility and says mean things about the mitti of Hindustan, we know that he will eventually beget at least one tight slap, if not literally, at least figuratively.
Feeling like a gulam and not a fauji, Ishar Singh is sent off to take charge of Fort Saragarhi. As he walks through the gorgeous landscape, he has imagined conversations with his wife, Jeevani (Parineeti Chopra), calling her “Malko” in cute Punjabi style.
What awaits him at the fort is a Lagaan-type of bonding with the team he is to lead.
This bit, which involves a rooster fight, a punishment, lots of loyalty and pride, is quite adorable and humanises the 21 men with jokes about kachchas, newly married men missing their brides, daddies missing daughters they haven’t seen, gay jokes and some talk about why low-caste Bhola Singh never smiles.
There’s also a glimpse of some patronising secularism as the soldiers help rebuild a mosque before the 21 Sikhs face hordes of charging Afghans. Ishar Singh’s call to arms is a clarion call to fight for the Sikh pride — i.e. their community and religion. Kesari is bahaduri ka rang, he says, giving the battle meaning by making it personal. Which was not the case. And is often not.
With the heightened drama of depleting ammunition, of the enemy rising on its dead to breach the wall of the fort, and some melodrama, the film keeps upping the emotional quotient.
The battle itself has stunning action, aided by CGI of course, and the stuntmen doing gatka usually seen only during Hola Mohalla.
The best action, of course, is kept for Ishar Singh at the end when there is hand-to-hand combat in which he literally skewers Afghans on his sword, turning the enemy into human kebabs, wrenching from an impossible situation a moral victory so glorious and honourable that even the enemy bows, respectfully.
The film’s last scene is epic. There’s lots of slashing, sharp blades and red blood, most of it quite unbelievable but spectacular.
The film’s last kill is cathartic, but, again, not recorded in history. Exactly as havildar Ishar Singh has said to the Mullah when threatened that by the end of the day his pagri will be under his foot, I felt like saying the same to Akshay Kumar — “Chal jhoote”.
British historian Maj. Gen. James Lunt wrote, “Ishar Singh was a somewhat turbulent character whose independent nature had brought him more than once into conflict with his military superiors. Thus, Ishar Singh — in camp, a nuisance, in the field, magnificent.”
Captain Amarinder Singh said of him, “While he will always be remembered for his gallant conduct at Saragarhi, within the regiment they will also rue the loss of their best illicit liquor producer, and a man who borrowed meat on hoof for his men, when short of rations, from a neighbouring unit without asking them.”
Akshay Kumar as the brave, deft, agile, skilled, passionate Sikh soldier is excellent. But all this is powered by his pride in his pagri. He uses his cuteness to endear himself to us, and his romance with Parineeti is quite sweet. He carries the film with his charming confidence, but also on the zeitgeist of our times.
The film awards ceremonies that are to come will be falling over themselves to open envelops and scream out his name. At least this time it will be well deserved.
Though Kesari does say a few right things — “Jung, sarhad sab karobar hai” — its portrayal is uncompromisingly biased. While on the Indian side, a gay joke is cracked, the Afghanis get a sharp-shooting eunuch.
It is true that the tower was set on fire, that the Mullah of Hadda, an influential preacher, had declared jihad, that there was hand-to-hand combat in Saragarhi, the scenes as created — the young signaller sepoy Gurmukh Singh is turned into a walking mashaal, a soldier is impaled, rather beautifully, by swords and daggers — are dramatic, but phoney.
The Battle of Saragarhi is a deeply tragic and inspiring piece of history that needed no embellishments. The more real and honest things had been kept, the less used and abused I would have felt.
That apart, Anurag Singh’s Kesari in many parts, especially in the dhol scene, Kesari reminded me of Cy Enfield’s Zulu (1964) about how 150 dog-tired British infantry men at Rorke’s Drift in 1879 and stopped 4,000 Zulu tribesmen.
Singh, who made the huge hits, Punjab 1984 and the Jatt and Juliet series — the top three highest grossers of Punjabi cinema — and his cinematographer, Anshul Chobey, use the stark majesty of the landscape to frame iconic action images that will remain seared in my memory.