Anurag Singh’s Kesari features a proto-freedom fighter taking on a proto-Taliban force in a skirmish that is post-300. Zack Snyder’s 2006 Hollywood movie, about the battle between 300 Spartans and a vastly bigger Persian army, leaves its bloody imprint on the combat sequences in Kesari, but the legend that inspired Kesari comes from a source closer home – the Battle of Saragarhi waged between 21 Sikh soldiers and thousands of Afghan tribesman on September 12, 1897.

On paper, Kesari has everything going for it: a contest marked by remarkable valour and sacrifice, evocative locations (Wai in Maharashtra, Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh) that credibly recreate the site of the battle in the North-West Frontier Province in present-day Pakistan, and an estimable supporting cast. Leading man Akshay Kumar, who has leapt to the rescue in numerous films, also appears to be a shoo-in as Isher Singh, who leads the 36th Sikh Regiment to death and eternal glory.

Anurag Singh and co-writer Girish Kohli have no excuse to botch up the material, but they do so anyway. Sluggishly paced until the interval and springing to life only in fits and starts in the second half, Kesari is a poor attempt to revisit a chapter in Indian military history that earned the admiration even of British colonisers and is celebrated to this day in Punjab.

Kesari (2019). Courtesy Dharma Productions/Zee Studios.

The opening sequences bode well: Isher Singh gets involved in a skirmish with Afghan tribesmen that establishes his personal code of honour and independent spirit. His British superior Lawrence (Edward Sonnenblick), however, disapproves of Isher’s actions, and sends him off to head the neighbouring fort Saragarhi, where, it is said, nothing happens.

Isher arrives to find the 36th Sikh Regiment in disarray. Like a captain taking charge of an unruly cricket team, Isher licks his men into shape just in time to face the marauding Afghanis, who is led by fundamentalist cleric Saidullah (Rakesh Chaturvedi).

The film’s writers put a revisionist religious spin on the willingness of Isher and his men to lay down their lives for their British masters. The cleric is rebuked for invoking religion for a territorial struggle, and his kohl-lined eyes, frequent use of the word “jihad” and unremitting cruelty mark him as the movie’s villain. And yet, Isher proves to be the cleric’s mirror image, rousing his men into action in the name of Sikhism and invoking Sikh legends to remind them of their legacy.

The confrontation that should be between 21 on the one side and thousands on the other becomes a conflict between faiths. The Afghanis are portrayed as religious-minded savages who loot and slaughter through crooked means. “They attacked our religion,” a character whimpers to Isher, making it clear what just what this battle is about.

Kesari (2019).

Lost in the process is the opportunity to stage a pure, high-octane war drama. The 150-minute runtime, which includes flashbacks to Isher’s courtship of the woman he eventually marries (played by Parineeti Chopra), and limp attempts at slapstick humour, slow down the momentum ever so often. A movie that should have been about a legendary last stand becomes yet another star vehicle for Akshay Kumar, who is the only character with a back story. The other soldiers, which includes characters played by Vansh Bharadwaj and Pritpal Pali, are not accorded this honour, and are indistinguishable from one another in their matching turbans and beards.

Akshay Kumar stretches his vocal cords to breaking point in Kesari, but his presence proves to be one of the many deterrents. Mohit Raina played the role equally well in the television series 21 Sarfarosh – Saragahri 1897. Kumar’s character is a variation of the capeless superheroes he has played in so many films. His distinctive voice and body language have the swagger of the vigilantes and police officers he has portrayed in the past, and his sanctimony and statesman-like acts (helping the locals build a mosque, sparing the life of a child warrior on the battlefield) further interrupt the action.

The movie is at its most engaging in the battle sequences, which are vividly staged by Anurag Singh and lensed by Anshul Choubey. They produce moments of inspiration, including the suggestion that Isher Singh pioneered the telescopic rifle and a cross-dressing bejewelled sniper.

The production design and costumes, along with the locations, transport us back to the late nineteenth century, but the movie’s religious tint and inability to see the battle as a territorial conflict between colonial subjects and colonisers place it firmly in the present. As they die surely and in merciless ways one by one, Isher Singh and his men take their place in the pantheon of Sikh martyrs. Who are we fighting for, Isher bellows loud enough to be heard across the Hindu-Kush mountain range, and the answer makes for a dull move about a memorable stand-off.

Kesari (2019). Courtesy Dharma Productions/Zee Studios.