Produced by: Hiroo Johar, Aruna Bhatia, Karan Johar, Sunil Khetarpal & Apoorva Mehta
Directed by: Anurag Singh
Written by: Anurag Singh & Girish Kohli
Music: Arko, Tanishk Bagchi, Chirrantan Bhatt, Jasbir Jassi, Gurmoh & Jasleen Royal
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra (Sp. App.), Ajit Singh Mahela, Sandeep Nahar, Harvinder Singh, Rakesh Sharma, Adhrit Sharma, Vivek Saini, Harbhagwan Singh, Rajdeep Singh Dhaliwal, Gurpreet Toti, Harry Brar, Pali Sandhu, Vikram Singh Chauhan, Gagneet Singh, Vikram Kocchar, Surmeet Singh Basra, Edward Sonnenblick, Mark Bennington, Rakesh Chaturvedi, Mir Sarwar, Ashwath Bhatt, Sonyaa, Asha Joshi, Bhavani Muzamil, Toranj Kayvon & others
The challenge before the writers and director (who is one of the writers) is big: reproduce an era and event that has been ill-represented in the pages of history. The second part of the challenge is in making available two hours-plus of footage of an event whose details of characterization cannot possibly be known as it had happened more than 200 years ago. The third part is to make the drama acceptable to the 2019 audience, relatable and thus commercially viable as well. After all, it has to match the scale, budgets and superstar presence.
To achieve all this, we need to have a huge dose of intelligence, a huger dose of imagination, and both creative and technical backing. The Battle of Saragarhi lasted for only nine hours and was a fantastic one with a mere 21 Sikhs pitted against 10,000 Afghan invaders. There was also the question of self-respect as India then was at the mercy of the British, who wanted the brave Sikhs to fight on their behalf.
And so, Havaldar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar) had his job cut out. Sent to Saragarhi (where nothing ever happened!) because he disobeyed orders, he finds that the men there have become laidback, prone to enjoy life rather than one prepared as soldiers in a fort must always be. He puts them back on track and realizes that they are brave men.
Soon, they get a message. The message is that 10,000 Afghans are going to attack the fort and that the British have suggested they run away. Ishar is bluntly told by the men that they will fight to the death instead. There is a terrific twist in the tale here, but the final decision is the same: to fight to the death – for a cause sacred to them.
History records that 900 of the invaders (almost a tenth of them!) were killed by the 21 bravehearts before the last one laid down his life. And the film details this fact with tremendous imagination.
Akshay Kumar, as an actor, has never made straight biopics or stories on events. He has ensured that every story, come “Airlift,” “Rustom,” “Gold,” “Pad-Man” or “Toilet - Ek Prem-Katha,” has the right fictional touches that gratify the pan-Indian audience. And this time, he rises to the occasion once again with his writers Girish Kohli and Anurag Singh, who also directs the film.
The opening sequence, in one cinematic stroke, not only makes “Kesari” immediately more relatable due to its tone of gender equality and the highlighting of regressive orthodoxy on the part of the Afghans looking down at a woman (Toranj Kayvon). We see the same wicked ‘mullah’ (Rakesh Chaturvedi, brilliantly underplaying the role), who is frustrated then by Ishar, as one of the leaders of the invasion, a classic ‘filmi’ touch though he never knows that he might come face to face with Ishar again.
We also have the touch of the man in charge putting a bunch of complacent soldiers on track, and the way they misunderstand him. The-19 year-old nerdy soldier who has never killed a soul (Surmeet Singh Basra), the episode of why all the Sikhs rebuild a mosque in a small village, the flashbacks when Ishar’s late wife (Parineeti Chopra) comes in at intervals to inspire him, the stories of the other soldiers (one joins the army because his father loves army shoes!), the sly and twisted sniper among the Afghans (Bhavani Muzamil) all make us forget we are watching what happened way back and we are seeing a ‘today’ film.
Not that the film is flawless. We find it ridiculous that every time a Sikh is injured, two or more of the others go to help him, leaving aside the more vital job of fighting the invaders. The ceasefire in-between seems funny, though what Ishar devises when he meets the opposition is deadly. The ‘fiery’ climax after Ishar’s death is also absurd. Also, the ease at which messages are sent by code to the Lockhart Fort but the garrison there just waits instead of helping the Saragarhi team seems a little unlikely again, though, of course, it is recorded history that the 36th regiment was alone to fight the impossible odds.
On the plus side, the action sequences (Parvez Shaikh and Lawrence Woodward) are fantastically conceived and executed, and the VFX by Fluid Mask supervised by Prashant Thakur, and the DI by FutureWorks is on par with global standards. One can almost smell the dust, the mud, the terrain.
Cinematographer Anshul Choubey’s work is also first-rate, the sweep of the camera encompassing the epic story’s action-packed sequences. Manish More’s editing is deft, sometimes even abrupt, and it is clear that some stretched element in the first half is on the director’s say-so.
Singh delivers a high-class product that focuses on the vital need to touch and grip the audience. The writing is skilled, the dialogues once again very ‘today’ in the relatable quotient. Raju Singh’s background score is magnificent, and the songs a mixed bag, with nothing memorable except for Arko’s “Teri Mitti” sung evocatively by Punjabi folk singer B. Praak and stunningly written by Manoj Muntashir.
The performances remain at a very high level. Akshay Kumar effortlessly slips into the character’s nuances – it seems as if the costume, turban and beard have created some magic within him. Parineeti as his wife is exceptional. The British actors are made to ham, but, besides Chaturvedi, as mentioned above, Mir Sarwar as the dignified Khan Masood and Ashwath Bhatt as Gul Badshah Khan leave a deep impress. Asha Joshi as the old lady, Muzamil as the sniper, and Basra as the too-young and unwilling solider are superb, as is Vansh Bhardwaj as Chanda Singh. Vikram Kochhar is also very effective as Ishar’s buddy in the earlier fort, and in fact, all the Sikhs are effective.
This is a film that takes the commercial and factual and amalgamates both in a smooth blend. It emerges as one of the few war movies in Indian cinema that will take on the dimension of a classic.