Director: Anurag Singh
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra
At one point in Kesari, two cultures are at the brink of war. One of them – let’s call them the bad guys – presents a frontline of drum-beating kohl-eyed soldiers. This is their war cry. In response, the other – let’s call them the good guys – presents their turbaned leader on top of the fort. He single-handedly drowns out the drum-beating enemies by whipping out a dholak and letting it rip. An epic battle is reduced to an egoistic contest of noise; the louder one wins bragging rights. This pretty much sums up not just the film in question, but also the era it occupies. The louder the volume, the higher the josh. The higher the josh, the bigger the us-against-the-world sentiment. The stories are just a medium to amplify these sounds.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Kesari, starring who else but Akshay Kumar in a well-shampooed fake beard, might be marketed as a celebration of valour and bravery and all those patriotic hashtag terms guiding Indian filmmakers since 2014. But this godawful movie merely uses history as a ruse to continue Hindi cinema’s fetishization of violence. For no less than 80 minutes out of the film’s 150 (if not for the slow-motion shots, Kesari might have run at 21 minutes), bullets smash through skulls, chests, waists, butts, hands and eyes. Bodies are gleefully impaled onto multiple swords while a swelling background score and Jasleen Royal’s disturbingly young voice pepper a bonfire of corpses.
Kumar feeds the bloodthirst of 2019 by positioning the blood spilled in 1897. The setting may be the famous Battle of Saragarhi, in which 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Indian army take on a battalion of 10000 Afghan tribesmen. But the mood is today’s, the irrational rage is today’s, and the message – of victimization and ruthless defiance – is depressingly today’s. Which is why legends are exploited, and not told, by today’s filmmakers.
Kumar is Ishar Singh, a Sikh soldier whose empathy is established in an opening scene where he rescues a spotlessly pretty Pathani girl from the hands of her male abusers. Even her bruises are aesthetically designed. Singh is then berated for doing this by quintessential British officers who insist on speaking in Lagaan Hindi. He resents them for calling him a slave, and is banished to run a sparsely furnished fort on the Indo-Afghan border. On the way, he sings a song or two with either the memory or the ghost of his wife (Parineeti Chopra). Once he reaches the fort, this transmutates into a typical sports movie in which a hard-assed coach tries to win the loyalty of his new recruits. The banter is boring and forced. This is painful to watch, because we know that each of these useless characters is going to be afforded a proper Border-style goodbye scene when they lay dying and disfigured in the second half. And they will take ages to perish; the bullets have one job, but when has death ever come in between the romance of a strong parting line?
A half-funny rooster joke later, it is revealed that the Afghans – I half-expected to see Alauddin Khilji leading the charge – are planning to infiltrate the country by taking down the Saragarhi fort and its ragtag inhabitants, Ishar Singh’s 36 Sikh Regiment, first. By now, it dawns upon me that even if I’d have walked into the hall in the interval, Kesari would make just as much (non)sense. The bonding and dead wife and fake beards made absolutely no difference to a narrative that was always destined to turn into brainless battlefield porn. Kumar is usually very Kumar-ish, but his character becomes a lovechild of Ajay Devgn and Sunny Deol, and this is a very distressing image.
Three hours after the press show, I’m yet to regain my senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing and full eyesight. If I were a character in the film, there would have been eight bullets in me by now but I’d still be writing. And milking my last line. So I’m going to be as polite and restrained as possible here. The only way Kesari could have done justice to its source material is if it didn’t exist.