The year was 1897, and the date, September 12. Stationed at an army post in the North West Frontier Province, 21 Sikh soldiers (of the 36th Sikhs of British Indian Army) stood their ground, and fearlessly fought 10,000 raging Afghans. Considered as one of history’s greatest last stands, the epic ‘Battle of Saragarhi’ has been listed as one of the top eight battles of bravery by UNESCO while September 12 every year is commemorated as Saragarhi Day. Not only this, for almost close to a decade, filmmakers have been chasing this glorious chapter in the Indian history, one that narrates a moving tale of valour, unparalleled bravery and exceptional courage.
While in December 2009, writer-director Rohit Jugraj officially announced ‘21’, based on that one day in the 1897 battle of Saragarhi, Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘21-Battle of Saragarhi’ starring Randeep Hooda has hit a roadblock. Although Discovery Jeet aired their television series Sarfarosh – Saragarhi 1897 starring Mohit Raina, it’s filmmaker Karan Johar who is all set to release his tribute to the indomitable spirit of the valiant soldiers this Friday (March 21).
Entitled Kesari, as the film’s stars Akshay Kumar and Parineeti Chopra along with director-writer Anurag Singh stop by the city for a quick chat, we gun for the obvious – why Saragarhi? “Why not,” says Singh. “It’s a proud, brave, inspirational chapter of our history, one most of India knows little about, and I wish was part of school syllabus,” says Singh.
Superhit director of superhit Punjabi films, including Jatt and Juliet and Punjab 1984, Singh was the natural choice “because of his knowledge of Punjab and that he could do justice to such a story”, chips in Akshay Kumar, who was on board, right from the moment Johar narrated the story to him. He plays Havildar Ishar Singh, the fearless soldier who leads his men in this fight to death. Parineeti, meanwhile, balances the heavy on action film with a soft romantic part. “It’s a beautiful role,” says the actress, who would love to play a female comedienne in a film.
His second Bollywood project, (his first and only Hindi film, Raqeeb shelved), Singh was clearly nervous taking on such a huge project. “When you agree to give two years of your life to such a film, you have to do justice to it,” feels Singh. Hindi or Punjabi, the language of the film is secondary. It’s the scale that varies, and while he had Dharma Productions and Akshay Kumar on his side, Kesari had him on his toes — from penning ballistic dialogues, ‘shopping’ for locations and action directors, rifling through research papers and books on Saragarhi, going over political and geographical details, the 1890s period of strife between Britishers and Russians and caught in between Afghanistan, reading through Col Haughton’s biography that mentions Saragarhi, CM Capt Amrinder Singh’s research on Saragarhi and The Defence of Samana Forts, and the book, The Epic Battle of Saragarhi by Gurinder Pal Singh Josan, Singh dug deeper for his script which he co-wrote with Girish Kohli.
For both Singh and Akshay, the daunting challenge was action, for which Mad Max Fury Road’s stunt coordinator Lawrence Woodward and Parvez Sheikh were roped in. If carrying a 300 kilo turban, doing combat with traditional weapons and indulging in hand-to-hand combat, that too at a high oxygen depreciated altitude of Spiti was challenging for Akshay, making the simple ‘load, eject, shoot’ rifle look impressive enough was trying for Singh.
Although Singh’s favourite star and friend Diljit Dosanjh is not part of Kesari, a couple of Chandigarh boys are, including Vansh Bhardwaj (Udta Punjab and Punjab 1984), Pali Sandhu, Suvinder Vicky and Vivek Saini. Bhardwaj plays Lance Naik Chanda Singh, a fierce, aggressive yet kind-hearted solider who is ready to fight. An alumnus of School of Communication Studies (SCS), Panjab University, Saini makes his debut with Kesari as the light-hearted and friendly Sepoy Jiwan Singh. Both Bhardwaj and Saini share how they went through extensive acting workshops, army training, sword-fighting training, etc in order to get under the skin of their characters. Catch them in action this March 21, in theatres.