Director: Anurag Singh
In 2006, Zack Snyder made 300, the highly stylised blockbuster about 300 Spartans valiantly taking on 300,000 Persian soldiers in war. Kesari, which stars Akshay Kumar, calls to mind that film because the stakes are similar.
Here, 21 Sikh soldiers fought against more than 10,000 Afghans in the famous Battle of Saragarhi of 1897. The film is titled Kesari after the saffron turban that the film’s protagonist Havaldar Ishar Singh sports as he goes to war – it’s the color of his martyrdom, and of his fierce sacrifice, we’re told.
But while Kesari has some heart-tugging moments, a few thrilling battle scenes, and is powered by the sincerity of its leading man, the film rests on a sluggish screenplay that is guilty of too much sermonising and caricaturish characterization. Part of the problem is that it’s a one-man show for Akshay Kumar. The writers have very little interest in developing or shading other characters, whether they’re the Sikh soldiers, the British officers, or the Afghani villains. The drama is predictable, some action scenes go on too long, and as a result, the film is unmistakably tiring.
Director Anurag Singh, whose National Award-winning film Punjab 1984, told the story of a mother and her missing son, set against the Punjab insurgency, does a fictional, ‘Bollywood’ retelling of the Saragarhi battle that is commemorated even today. He builds a narrative around the bravehearts of the 36th Sikh Regiment of the British Army who earned the Order of Merit from the British government for their valor. The premise has enough meat to it, but the film’s plotting is weak.
The first half especially drags, despite a strong opening that reveals Ishar Singh’s nobility and heroics as he saves an Afghan woman from a beheading. A fundamentalist cleric is enraged and declares war, drumming up support from other Afghan chieftains in the name of religion and jihad.
Meanwhile, Singh is banished by his sneering British army superiors (is there any other kind in the movies these days?). He’s now posted at the fort of Saragarhi, where he finds the 36th Sikh Regiment in a mess. The soldiers don’t wear their uniforms, they while away their time in rooster fights. Borrowing a page from Chak De India, Singh straightens out and instills discipline in his regiment, priming them so that they can fight as a united team in the film’s second half.
To be fair, some of the humor is mildly entertaining. What’s dull are the scenes between Singh and his wife (Parineeti Chopra) who he has left behind, and with whom he has imaginary conversations. Even though these scenes are few, they deaden the pace of the film, which in fact, is at least 30 minutes too long.
Soon the conflict becomes between two religions. The Islamic soldiers are portrayed as savage, backstabbing marauders who steal what they can find from the corpses of their enemy, while the honorable Sikhs benevolently help Afghan villagers build a mosque and offer water to their dying soldiers. A random distraction is the star gunman in the Afghan army; a campy character in heavy makeup and scarlet nail polish who seems to appear out of nowhere to take perfect aim at the enemy.
But what especially surprised me is the film’s U/A rating. This is a film in which bodies are routinely impaled on swords and spears, limbs are severed, blood is generously splattered, and in one scene Akshay drives a sword through four soldiers as if they were kebabs on a skewer.
What works is the bond between the men, especially Singh’s empathy for the youngest soldier, a 19-year-old who freezes when he faces armed conflict for the first time. There is an overall sincerity in the enterprise and some genuine skill on display. The camerawork is particularly impressive.
Akshay Kumar, his face sandwiched between an oversized turban and an oversized beard, nevertheless conveys the single-minded motivation of Ishar Singh, convincingly pulling off the rousing dialogue and visceral action scenes.
However, the film, on the whole, is well-intentioned but bloated. It’s a two-and-a-half hour battlefield bluster that could have done with sharper writing and judicious editing. When the lights come back on in the end, you can’t shake off the feeling of having survived war yourself. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Kesari.
Rating: 2.5 / 5