Kesari Review: Akshay Kumar and team put up a tedious fight
This film matches up neatly with the present mood in Indian cinema, but lacks the required craft: the writing is drab and the pace halting
We’re back to the numbers game. In the other action film that’s playing this week, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, there’s a mention of the ‘100-man kumite’: an extreme form of endurance testing in Kyokushin karate, that requires a fighter to contest 100-odd opponents. In Anurag Singh’s Kesari, that’s about as many men Akshay Kumar debones for breakfast. The film ‘based on a true story’ rewinds to the Battle of Saragarhi – a military skirmish fought between 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Army and 10,000 Afghans, on the North-West Frontier in 1897.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra
Direction: Anuraag Singh
Akshay plays Havilder Ishwar Singh, a soldier relegated to take charge of the Saragarhi signalling post after he rubs his British masters the wrong way. How exactly? By intervening in a beheading ritual across enemy lines, and also forgetting to salute his higher-ups. The film pauses to unfurl the cultural conflicts for easy viewing: the Afghans are the bad buys — savages, brutes, jihadists. The Britishers are the bad guys too, but not so much, since they still ‘rule upon India’. Ishwar owes his allegiance to his nation, mind you, and not the crown. He is quite the secularist when helping to build a mosque, but raise a finger at his holy ‘paghdi’ and all hell breaks loose. In many ways, Ishwar embodies the uptight dissonance of present-day India: progressive and egalitarian on the front, roiled by religious fury within.
His men are no better. The main battle ensues exasperatingly late, delayed by graceless sequences of military bonding and half-witted humour. There’s a stretch about two cockfighting roosters that looks to get somewhere, but settles for a dry laugh (Even in a patriotic movie, this is the dullest kind of ‘fowl play’). None of the 21 angry men get interesting backstories, and the only glimpse we get into Ishwar’s life is via sappy dream sequences. Parineeti Chopra, still reeling from the horrors of Namaste England, appears in Kesari as Akshay’s wife — as apparition, as ghost. Their romance is peppered by mother-in-law jokes and awkward sighs.
Then, drumrolls. Led by their ‘mullah’ chieftain, the ‘lashkars’ lay siege on Fort Saragarhi. The crowd generation is relatively impressive for a Hindi film, painting waves of charging men on the arid landscape. The fort itself reminded me of the ‘Monte Grappa’ map in Battlefield 1, while the action looked staged like a terrible zombie shooter. A massive pileup is made as the Sikhs gun down the Pathans, which is then shown to explode in flames. You’d expect more smarts from a compelling ‘certain death’ scenario, but Anurag and stunt director Riley Suter (Mad Max: Fury Road, no less) go completely out of tricks. Instead, they use jarring cutaways, nagging music and clamourous warcries to drown out the film’s lack of wit. Towards the end, we see Akshay squaring off in a saffron turban, brandishing a flaming sword. Hundreds of enemies encircle him, but there’s no thrill to the scene — this fight is already won.
Kesari is a noisy, utterly-protracted war historical with little regard to war or history. The film matches up neatly with the present mood in Indian cinema; even then, it lacks the craft of an Uri: The Surgical Strike or the frenzy of a Manikarnika to at least put up a show. The writing is drab, the pace halting, and the dialogues tedious. Religion and nationalism might’ve become divisive topics, but boredom remains universal. It’s only here that Kesari manages to unite us all.