WARNING FOR PARENTS: This is an extremely violent film filled with Game of Thrones-grade bloodshed, beheadings and impalements. It is curious that the Central Board of Film Certification, which has issued A (Adults-only) ratings for far less gore and the use of swear words in recent years, found Kesari fit for a relatively mild UA. In the Indian system, UA stands for “unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of 12″. For some perspective, please note that Udta Punjab was rated A for its abundance of expletives, the Rani Mukerji-starrer Mardaani was rated A for colourful language and violence that is tame compared to what we see in Kesari which has got a UA despite heads being chopped off, an eye being mutilated in close up and, among a zillion instances of bloodletting, a clear, lingering shot of a dead Sikh soldier’s body pierced by multiple swords that have been driven into the ground to hold him up almost horizontally. (Warning ends)
Imagine a real-life battle in which a band of 21 soldiers defended a fort against about 10,000 opponents and managed to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy. This, according to records, is what happened at the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897 in which men of the British Indian Army’s 36th Sikh Regiment warded off Pathan troops for several hours till their last breath at a small British outpost that falls in modern-day Pakistan.
There is enough drama in the truth to merit a nail-biting, breath-stopping film. The truth is not enough for too many filmmakers though.
So, in the hands of writer-director Anurag Singh — creator of Punjabi blockbusters making his Bollywood debut here — Saragarhi gets embellished and twisted to please the communities it means to pander to and play along with the current dominant national discourse.
There can be no doubt about the bravery and skills of the 36th Sikh Regiment, but co-writers Girish Kohli and Singh seem to consider it an inconvenience that these men were, after all, fighting for the British Empire. In their bid to turn the 36th Sikhs into a cause that viewers of Independent India could root for, Kohli and Singh divert attention from Her Majesty and write conversations into the screenplay that position Saragarhi as a campaign by brave Sikhs for their qaum and for India’s azaadi.
Then, to cash in on the prevailing nationalist frenzy steeped in Islamophobia, they present the Pathans with an absolute lack of nuance as hordes of bloodthirsty, regressive, cowardly, unethical barbarians fighting a jihad in Allah’s name against a civilised, liberal, gutsy, noble force.
When Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar), head of the 36th Sikh Regiment at Saragarhi, opens his mouth and roars, the Pathans, though armed to the teeth, cower before him as the Pakistan Army did nearly two decades back when Sunny Deol hollered at them and threatened them with a handpump he had uprooted with his bare hands. Like old-style Hindi film villains, the Pathans are often stupid to boot and in at least one scene are shown assaulting a solitary Sikh one by one instead of in unison. If this film’s version of events is to be believed, the Pathans’ only strength lay in their numbers and their utter amorality.
Kesari takes its time to get to the battle, spending its somewhat slow-paced first half establishing Ishar’s unwillingness to accept orders from British seniors that go against his principles, acquainting us with his wife (Parineeti Chopra) through a long flashback and fantasy sequences in which he holds imaginary conversations with her, and building up the bond between him and the men newly under his command at Saragarhi. This segment is equal parts funny, mushy to cringe-worthy levels and trite.
The momentum picks up post-interval as does the tension, despite a Sikh soldier breaking into song at a crucial moment in the battle. But as much as the combat is executed skilfully and is designed to set pulses racing, the clichéd, populist portrayal of the Pathans, the Sikhs and vintage Bollywood heroism robs Kesari of all finesse and intelligence.
Far from being a war drama based on actual events, it then becomes just another Die Hard in which the ever-invincible Bruce Willis is replaced by the ever-invincible Akshay Kumar. When an explosion occurs in the midst of tents, sending them up in flames and consuming everyone within touching distance, only Akshay a.k.a. Ishar emerges unscathed. The Pathans are so intimidated by him that even when he is completely surrounded, it takes them time to attack him all at one go. As it happens, Ishar is also a saint.
The manner in which Kesari stereotypes the Muslim Pathans — the marauding mob, the evil mullah, the wily and campish sniper — fits the narrative being pushed by the present Indian establishment. (And for the benefit of discerning viewers who might object, two ‘good’ Muslims are thrown into the mix for good measure.) While this aspect of the film merits a discussion considering the wave of Islamophobia sweeping across today’s world, it is equally important to focus on the positive othering of Sikhs.
Bollywood categorises Sikhs into two clear-cut groups: the undiluted boisterous buffoon and the undiluted braveheart. Kesari deals in the latter. The positive stereotyping of marginalised and minority communities tends to lull liberals and members of those communities into complacence, but needs to be viewed with concern for what it is: a sugar-coated form of othering, a manifestation of the filmmaker’s inability to see that community as “one of us” or, at worst, a mask for prejudice. If you find your heart warming up to the routine pedestalising of Sikhs in Hindi films, remember that pre-2000 Hindi cinema was marked by a positive stereotyping of Muslims, with the golden-hearted, all-sacrificing Muslim being a regular in stories back then. What did that trope seek to hide?
Blanket statements and blanket characterisations of communities in films should always give us pause.
To say none of this matters if a film is entertaining amounts to denying the power of cinema. Yes, Akshay’s natural charisma does come through in Kesari when he is not over-acting. Yes, the men under his command are well cast, with Suvinder Vicky and Vansh Bharadwaj particularly making a mark as the supportive Lal Singh and the rebellious Chanda Singh respectively. Yes, the cinematography by Anshul Chobey is impressive and the battle scenes are more technically polished than the recent Manikarnika. And yes, the passing reference to caste discrimination among Sikhs is a greater acknowledgement of caste than we are used to from Bollywood. But none of this should distract us from the sad reality that Kesari’s makers do not have faith in the very story they claim to tell.
Early in Kesari, a British officer taunts Ishar Singh — the soil of Hindustan births only cowards, he says. His contempt sparks off a rage in Ishar and a desire to demonstrate that Indians are valiant. He spouts a line around this time about how he is tired of the enslavement of his people, first by Mughals and now by the British. This entire portion is written to indicate that the 36th Sikh Regiment fought at Saragarhi for their own self-respect and, in the long run, India’s freedom, not because they were paid to do so nor out of loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen of England. What a perfect example of mindless cinematic patriotism — it seems not to have occurred to the writers, that at the end of the day, what their film is saying is that Ishar’s goal was to prove himself to his white master.
Irrespective of what the 36th Sikhs’ actual motivations were, obviously theirs was a historic last stand worthy of a film. When an honest army procedural could have had an impact, the team of Kesari chose instead to be a barely disguised propaganda vehicle and to chronicle this remarkable episode with self-defeating twists. A spot of exaggeration here and there could of course be explained away as cinematic licence, even the loudness and initial tempo could have been excused, but this goes way beyond that. It is as if Team Kesari were dissatisfied with the truth about the 36th Sikh Regiment who, ironically, they seek here to lionise.