Midway through Kesari, there’s a scene where an army comes into view over the crest of a hill, a long line of drummers in front. Watching this from the vantage point of Saragarhi fort, Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar) – with a regiment to command and facing almost certain death – decides he has time to drum-battle the Pathans. He turns up with a dhol and starts beating on it. There’s a whole valley between them, and at least 50 drummers on the other side, but somehow his playing not only reaches them but throws them off their rhythm so badly they stop.
This inane scene kicks off an hour of non-stop carnage, as Pathans lay siege to the fort and are miraculously held off for a day by 21 Sikhs. This battle actually happened: in 1897, the 36th Sikh regiment of the British army held off a large attacking force of tribesmen (10,000 in the film) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Saragarhi fort was important in establishing a line of communication between two larger British forts on either side. By the time reinforcements could be sent, the 21 men had been killed and the fort lost, though their brave last stand made it easier to recapture.
Throughout the film, director Anurag Singh contrasts the two forces. It’s curious he’d work so hard to paint the attackers in such a negative light. The Pathans fight dirty, are disrespectful and untrustworthy; the Sikhs are brave and men of their word. The Pathans are sadistic and cruel; the Sikhs provide water for the wounded of both armies. Though they’re devout, Ishar Singh and his men are broadminded enough that they help build a mosque in a nearby village. The leader of the Pathans, on the other hand, is a religious fundamentalist. He talks of jihaad and, at one point, is asked by a chieftain why he keeps bringing god into military matters. In a shameful scene, he orders the beheading of a woman while chanting prayers – a bit of caricature that exposes the film's noxious politics.
The Sikh regiment is obsessed with manhood. The term mardangi comes up several times. There’s banter about conjugal relations and a playful pass by one man at another elicits a panicked reaction. In contrast, the top shooter in the Pathan army wears makeup and is effeminate. It’s worth remembering that even Padmaavat had othered the Muslim “invader" in a similar manner with Jim Sarbh’s polysexual general.
We spend enough time with the 21 men in the run up to the battle that most of them get assigned a quirk or a talent. Kumar is the lone well-known actor, so the scenes inevitably pivot back to him, but there’s a lifelike camaraderie between the actors that could have become something in a smarter film. Once the attack commences, though, Kesari turns incredibly violent and increasingly monotonous. Singh shoots most of the action cleanly and without pretension. But there’s no variation, just a series of gory shootings and stabbings, and the effect is numbing instead of visceral.
This is the third Hindi war film this year after Uri and Manikarnika. Unlike those two, the motherland isn’t as central a concern here as Sikh pride. It's a wonder Kesari wasn’t made in Punjabi. The concerns are Punjabi, the characters are from there, but the language spoken is equal parts Hindi and easily understandable Punjabi. It may have India’s most bankable star (hidden under a gigantic beard), but it’s difficult to imagine why a non-Sikh audience – even in the excitable state the nation’s been whipped into – would care about a film so dull and monochromatic. There’s a worthy tribute due to those 21 men, but this reductive, gratuitous film isn’t it.