How a handful of Sikh soldiers bravely fought thousands of Afghan tribesmen in the 1897 battle of Saragarhi is at the heart of Kesari.
With Akshay Kumar playing Havildar Ishar Singh, the valorous Sardar who leads his men from the front, you know that this will be an out and out star vehicle. Which it is: he is in almost every frame, barring a few passages here and there.
It is also a full-blown melodrama, the kind of film in which soldiers staring down ‘maut’, because that’s what fearless Sikhs do, burst into song. You know these beats, because you have seen them in practically every Bollywood film on ‘jung’ and ‘azaadi’: the rough-and-tumble camaraderie between the men; a rebel who will come to heel; a youngster, who has never made a kill, coming into his own when the time is right, and scant female presence (the chirpy Chopra as Akshay’s love interest is a walk-on part) just enough to show the soft side of the steely soldier.
There are also some threads which seem to have been included to kowtow to the current majoritarian sentiment: a mulla who talks up ‘jehad’, spouts venom against women, and ‘kaafirs’ who need to be decimated. A token Afghan who is not so much of a hardliner is bunged in for balance, but we know exactly who the good guys here are: the 21 Sikh soldiers who are ready to give up their life for their ‘kaum’, and not as men of the British army. Not to miss that ‘kesar’ is the Hindi word for saffron.
What works for the film is its unapologetic embrace of loudness and lack of nuance: rousing speeches of patriotism keep breaking into the bloody action on the battlefield. Akshay gets the maximum, naturally; but the other soldiers do too. Some work has gone into outlining the other men, one of whom is clearly ‘lower caste’, who gets a teeka of equality, another who hasn’t had time for his suhagraat, and yet another who has just become a father.
Akshay is the film. And he pulls it off, keeping that ‘kesari pagdi’ aloft right till the end, delivering thundering speeches while keeping his men’s morale up. His Ishar Singh is inhabited and convincing, and it helps that his Punjabi accent is completely on point.
Finally, despite its predictable arcs, the outcome which we already know, stretched-out length, and clear alignment with the nationalistic mood of the nation, we stay with the film.