In the late 19th century during British-ruled India, a small outpost called Saragarhi on the border between British India and Afghanistan was manned by 21 Sikh Soldiers. In 1897 an onslaught of 10,000 Afghani tribesmen lay siege on the outpost. Cut off from all forms of reinforcements and support, the Sikh soldiers decided to stand their ground and face the invaders, killing hundreds in the process in what is recognised as one of history’s bravest last stands. Kesari tells their story.
This is by all accounts a fantastic tale from the history books which so perfectly lends itself to the interpretation on the big screen. It is also one which you surely couldn’t make boring even if you tried. Alas, this is Kesari’s greatest achievement.
Bollywood has always struggled with ‘event’ movies – films which focus on a specific incident. Rather than putting all their might, attention and runtime into that one specific event, we always resort to excessive padding. We pad it up with hours of unnecessary back story, love stories and songs, leaving the thing itself, the ‘event’ in question as just a small part of the film as indeed is the case with Kesari. This misguided focus on the unnecessary makes director Anurag Singh’s film an exercise in flat, feeble storytelling salvaged by a serviceable last leg which showcases the battle itself.
The first two-thirds of the film give us a whole lot of nothing with so little to engage with and invest in. We meet Akshay Kumar’s obviously brave and daring Havildar Ishar Singh who is punished by the British officers in charge for his inability to follow orders. As punishment, he is sent off to lead Saragarhi Fort – known for its lack of action and nothing happens-ness. Here he meets his new regiment, a lazy lot who have become used to the mundane life of seeing no action. Ishar Singh whips them into shape with much team-building and squad goals.
The regiment and the 20 odd soldiers themselves are perhaps the films second greatest failure. Outside the clear star at the lead, this story lies in the achievement of the entire regiment and their bravery, and perfectly lends itself to what could have been a formidable ensemble. Instead, the entire film is so fixated and mounted on our Mr Kumar you barely get a sense of the others and who they are. In short, a sorely missed opportunity in casting and character.
This all leads up to the big final battle sequences which partly make up for the hours before it and almost saves the film or at the very least makes it not a total waste of time. Here, in moments you do feel a sense of the soldiers’ struggle in standing their ground while slowly falling one by one. Anurag Singh’s film also suddenly becomes weirdly violent which gives the film a sense of honesty outside the standardised mainstream packaging.
While Kesari’s action is expectedly unimpressive and serviceable at best, there are moments that soar particularly during Ishar Singh’s last stand as he hacks through scores of the enemy. To its credit, Kesari is also a good-looking film. In its remote lavish landscapes and production design, you never doubt the setting or time period you’re in.
The film also deserves a number of awards including the worst use of blaring background score in recent memory. As well as one for ‘maximum armies minimum warfare’. After the thousands of Afghani tribals make their thundering entrance stopping some distance away from the fort, preparing their attack, they just stay there waiting around for what feels like a lifetime. In this time the Sikh regiment go through the motions of feeling fear, coming together, changing clothes, receiving a flat pep talk from Ishar Singh, listening to his endless monologuing and even a song. Suffice to say if I was a soldier among the Afghani invaders my legs would hurt from standing still for so long waiting for them to do their thing so we could get on with it and get our ransacking on.
In the end while Kesari isn’t entirely devoid of feeling or heart, these shine through in mere moments. Whilst the new subgenre of Akshay-Kumar-patriotic-films have thus far offered mixed results, Kesari is arguably the worst one yet, I’m going with 2 stars.