Director: Anurag Singh
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra
Kesari is a story so astounding that if it wasn’t true, you would never believe it. In September 1897, 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikh regiment of the British army fought valiantly against more than 10,000 Afghans. Using single-loading rifles, they kept the enemy at bay for hours ensuring that they didn’t succeed in their plan to take over two key British forts in the North West Frontier Province. The Battle of Saragarhi is known as one of the greatest last stands in military history.
Director Anurag Singh gives us a fictionalized version of the events. Kesari’s main mission is to valorize the Sikh regiment. Right at the start, it is established that their leader Havildar Ishar Singh is a man of integrity and limitless courage. He isn’t afraid to risk his life to do the right thing. Anurag, who co-wrote the screenplay with Girish Kohli, underlines the nobility of the Sikhs by making everyone else vastly inferior. The British are pasty-faced oppressors – in one scene, Ishar’s superior haughtily declares: India ki mitti logon ko darpok banati hai. And the Afghans are even worse – they are barbarians who use religion as a weapon. They slaughter women, rob the dead, kill even those who show them mercy and seem a little debauched – their best shooter comes to battle wearing nail polish and lipstick and looks as ready to flirt as he is to kill.
The story is told in broad strokes with little room for nuance or ambiguity. Ishar isn’t the only braveheart here – all 21 men of the Sikh regiment, down to the last man, are superheroes. We are given snatches of information about some of them – like one has a six-month old daughter, another was called to battle as soon as he got married. There is some attempt to give them personality so that we feel more emotion when they die. But none, apart from the youngest Gurmukh Singh, whose is actually afraid when the fighting begins, make an impression. Ishar, of course, gets a more detailed backstory – he has imaginary conversations with the wife he left behind, which do little except add to the length of the film. Parineeti Chopra, an actor who once had sparkle and promise, deserves better than this.
Despite the black and white palate, there is no doubt that Kesari has its heart in the right place. You can see the sincerity and the sweat. Anurag and leading man Akshay Kumar work tirelessly to deliver a rousing saga that teaches us not just about courage but also what it takes to be a real hero. So Ishar is the sort of man who will help the villagers to build a mosque and insist that the army cook give water to injured soldiers during battle – even the enemy’s. He explains: ladne se sirf dushman khatam hota hai aur pani pilane se dushmani.
What does wobble is the writing, which needed to be tighter and more layered. The characters are all one-note and the film is 150 minutes long – the entire first half is an introduction to the characters and a build up to the battle, which only begins in the second.
Akshay is at home with lines like this. Since Airlift in 2016, he has evolved into Bollywood’s go-to actor for roles that call for a blend of righteousness, nationalism and a benevolent machismo. Despite that bewildering beard, he’s convincing as Ishar, even in scenes that are so exaggerated that they become cartoonish – in the climactic battle, Ishar uses one hand to put his sword through three men and the other to punch a fourth. He’s superman without the cape. But Akshay and his determined gaze never falter.
What does wobble is the writing, which needed to be tighter and more layered. The characters are all one-note and the film is 150 minutes long – the entire first half is an introduction to the characters and a build up to the battle, which only begins in the second. Towards the end, there are long snatches with barely any dialogue. There’s just fighting, screaming and slicing. The action is well-choreographed but beyond a point, it becomes numbing and the weak CGI work doesn’t help. I will warn you – some of it is graphic with swords going through bodies and smashed heads.
Kesari makes an attempt to speak to today’ reality. The vicious Mullah uses religion, urging the tribes toward jihad. In another scene, a character declares: yeh jung, yeh sarhaden sab karobar hai. But there is too little of this.
Instead we get bloodshed in slow motion, a few good men fighting until their last breath and a plaintive soundtrack to underline their immense sacrifice. It gets a little exhausting. I’m going with two and a half stars.