Director: Anurag Singh
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra
One of history’s most stunning last stands, The Battle of Saragarhi featured valour that warrants a legend. On 12 September 1897, a mere twenty one Sikh soldiers defied thousands of Afghan tribesmen attacking the strategic military outpost of Saragarhi in the Khyber Pass. It is something that has not been taught in Indian schools — perhaps because it was about protecting a colonial British Indian outpost from colonised Afghan locals — but the bravery of these men deserves salutation.
Does it also, however, deserve this film? Anurag Singh’s Kesari first maps the terrain of comedy, with the valiant Jat Sikhs of Saragarhi depicted as a bunch of sloppy, inefficient men walking around without their uniforms and making feeble jokes, allowing the soundtrack to go wahu-wahu. This goes against the historical information that the 36th Sikhs infantry was composed of the boldest, best-trained soldiers. This film feels the need to present them as incompetent simply because one man needs to be highlighted.
Akshay Kumar plays Havildar Ishar Singh, the man who led the battle, and as is the norm in an Akshay Kumar film, he takes charge. Not only does he tighten this unit of soldiers and get them to wear clean uniforms, but also sketches sundials freehand, hurls the Sikh chakram with the precision of a discus-thrower, and attaches a telescope to a gun to invent his own version of a sniper rifle. Cue the Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi theme music, because, to paraphrase a Kumar series of comedies: Singh Is Killing.
The film looks large, but doesn’t make a sufficient impact. There is an occasional moment of intrigue, like when Kumar’s disciplinarian character is mocked by his subordinates who call him “saala Angrez”, but this talk of “bloody Englishmen” only leads to a strange situation later, where Kumar lies about the orders given to his men and then says they must fight, but not fight for the British. It feels dodgy to see soldiers fighting in uniform after first denouncing it.
Then, Kumar goes and gets himself a non-regulation saffron turban, which serves primarily to let us pick him out quickly in crowded combat scenes. The film’s coolest aspects are the chakrams, dangerous circular weapons forming tight halos around the turbans, and some glimpses of Gatka, the Sikh martial art. Most of the action is unmemorable, sadly. There is much bloodlust and regrettably little warcraft; these soldiers mostly prevail because the invaders choose to take turns shooting.
Kumar leaps about well and does his best Sunny Deol impression — or the best he can manage from behind a distractingly fake beard. The other soldiers appear more authentic, most of them caring enough about the film to leave their hair long and actually grow their beards, but they haven’t been given as much to do besides rally behind Kumar The Unbeatable.
We must salute the brave soldiers of the Saragarhi. This movie merely gives us 21 angry men.