When Havildar Ishar Singh—played by Akshay Kumar– the protagonist of Anurag Singh’s Kesari, is about to go into a battle that will result in the death of his small regiment, he changes from his khaki uniform turban to a saffron one. The symbolism is not lost. Because the twenty-one brave men of the Sikh Regiment are martyred fighting for their British masters, this bit of uneasy business is covered up by the fiery speech by their leader which explains that they are fighting for their honour (because a white man called all Indians cowards) and their faith.
The ten thousand Afghan tribesmen they fight have been instigated into “jihad” by a sneering mulla (Rakesh Chatruvedi), who was angered by Ishar Singh and his men rushing in to save a runaway Afghan woman from getting beheaded.
The Sikhs are as kind as they are valiant—Ishar Singh helps build a mosque, refrains from killing a child and orders his regiment’s cook to give water to dying enemy soldiers, while the Afghans pile up their dead and clamber over them to reach the top of the fort. The battle is between noble Sikhs and savage Muslims—but set in 1897, before the age of political correctness.
Ishar Singh is banished to Saragarhi Fort—“where nothing happens”–for disobeying the orders of his British officers. He spends the first half of the film disciplining the men, who have lost their edge due to idleness. There is the usual mix—a wise older man, a rebel, a low-caste man, a new bridegroom, a homesick father, a wide-eyed newbie. But only Ishar Singh is given a hint of a backstory of a quick romance and marriage to Jeevani (Parineeti Chopra).
The second half has the men fighting the huge Afghan army, knowing no help with arrive and they will be killed—and they are, one by one, in gruesome ways—but they kill a lot of enemy fighters, who keep charging and are shot, till bullets run out. Ishar Singh not just makes melodramatic speeches, but also thinks up innovative ways to decimate as many Afghans as he can—their army, for some reason, includes a transgender in full make-up!
For their valour and sacrifice, the regiment was honoured by the British, and gurudwaras built in their name in Punjab. What they did was indeed great, even though it was for the benefit of the colonizers. The film is well shot, the battle sequences edge-of-the-seat, but it also follows the clichéd trope of glorifying war as a means of determining true manhood. The liberal dash of patriotism catches the current mood, but really, when peace is the need of the hour, it’s time to reassess the narrative.