'Kesari' film review: yet another patriot act

What would you do when you have a well-documented piece of history to make a film on? Weave interesting characters, relationships and situations around it, power it with some potent performances and voila! Nothing of the sort happens in Kesari.

Details of the Battle of Saragarhi of 1897, in which 21 soldiers of the Sikh regiment of the British-Indian army took on thousands Afghan tribesmen, have been in the public realm—from the first sepoy to die, to the breach of the fort wall to the spectacular, single-handed bravery of Hawaldar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar in the film) to the young sepoy Gurmukh Singh (Surmeet Singh Basra) dying while shouting “Bole so nihal”. It’s a tale of unsurpassed heroism of the Sikhs that goosebump-inducing mainstream nationalistic cinema would usually be made of.

  • Director: Anurag Singh
  • Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra, Vansh Bhardwaj, Surmeet Singh Basra
  • Storyline: Recreation of the Battle of Saragarhi of 1897 (and the events leading up to it) in which 21 soldiers of the Sikh regiment of the British-Indian army take on thousands of Afghan tribesmen

However, Kesari is eminently ineffectual, more slack than stirring even when it comes to contemporary cinematic compulsions of romanticising valour. Far from rousing, the film leaves one distanced from the proceedings on screen and comes alive, only in the last stand climax of the battle. Or in the few moments when the forever moving shabad—‘Shubh karman te kabahun na taro’—plays in the background. It is only then that I felt mildly invested.

Is the disconnect because one is satiated with the assembly line, mass-produced on-screen nationalism of the times? Not quite, if one were to dispassionately look at the success of Uri. Kesari is Kumar’s Gold 2 in its essential inertness. When it comes to patriotic acts, the narrative is too self-consciously and self-righteously designed rather than displaying any spontaneous internal combustion. Ditto for Kumar’s sanctimonious noblesse oblige turn, that is getting tired and boring, film upon film, ad upon ad.

The events leading up to the battle are far from engaging; the incredulous use of the ‘f’ word, “Chal jhootha” humour and attempts at lighter moments belaboured. There is some half-hearted messaging on caste and syncretism— we are reminded that Harmandir Sahib’s foundation was laid by Hazrat Mian Mirji,.

On the flip side, there are also some far from veiled contemporary nods with the nice, brave and civil Sikhs, who build a mosque as sewa, taking on the “other”--the uncivilised, Talibanised, jihadi brutes (complete with a transvestite—are we referencing masculinity here?) who go around savagely beheading a helpless woman, steal the belongings of the dead soldiers and brazenly commit other atrocities. Then there is a larger significant point to prove as well—that Indian soil doesn’t bear cowards.

Kesari has a ragtag bunch of soldiers—quite like the cricket team in Lagaan—that Ishar Singh has to bring together. Years later, the peripheral characters of the 2001 film—be it Lakha, Bagha or Kachra--still make for instant recall. It would have, perhaps, worked with good casting and performances supporting the main lead. However, in the one-man show, none of the other characters or actors turn out memorable. All that has stayed on with me is the landscape—the brown, arid earth pitted against the majesty of the snow-laden, silver mountains. If only panoramic settings could make a good film.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 7:14:52 PM |

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