The legendary Battle of Saragarhi, the last stand on Sept. 12, 1897 of 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikhs of the British Indian Army against at least 10,000 Afridi and Orakzai Pashtun tribesmen, is brought to life by the 2019 Indian Hindi-language film “Kesari”, which is streaming on Prime Video.
In my opinion, the last stand of these 21 Sikhs should be as universally known as that of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. And this excellent movie, which stars Akshay Kumar and Parineeti Chopra, and is written and directed by Anurag Singh, does a remarkable job not only of showing us the epic battle, but also of letting us get to know more about the 21 Sikhs, as well as the unsung hero, Khuda Daad, the lone civilian at the fort — a Pashtun (also called Pathan) who acts as cook and handyman. Twenty-two died that day in defense of the fort, not twenty-one.
Kesari, the color of bravery and sacrifice
The title of the movie comes from the word “kesari”, which means saffron. Saffron, as Kumar’s character, the non-commissioned officer Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh, explains, is the color of bravery and sacrifice.
“Kesari” gives viewers a glimpse into the Sikh community and their religion and history. Known as among the fiercest warriors in history, the Sikhs are praised not only for being brave and loyal soldiers, but also for their commitment to justice for oppressed people and religious freedom. They have a reputation for trustworthiness and honesty, and are known for their strong work ethic. An Indian religion founded in the 15th century by Gurū Nānak, Sikhism is practiced by between 25-30 million people worldwide, with the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent as their historic homeland. Male Sikhs generally have Singh (lion) as their middle or last name, while female Sikhs have Kaur (princess) as their middle or last name.
At its peak, the Sikh Empire, which lasted from 1799-1849, extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east, and from Mithankot in the south to Kashmir in the north. The Sikh Empire, which had a religiously diverse population of around 3.5 million, was the last major region of the Indian subcontinent to be annexed by the British Empire.
The tale of Ishar Singh
“Kesari” of course is a fictionalized account of the real Battle of Saraghari. Some superheroic and stylized action sequences involving Kumar’s main character might even be deliberately paying tribute to Zack Snyder’s “300”, but they do look amazing.
More importantly, Kumar is a great actor who is able to show us different facets of Ishar Singh’s character. Whether he is getting angry at the British officer who looks down at him and all Indians, laughing with the Sikh soldiers under his command at Saraghari, or sharing tender moments with his wife, Kumar makes us believe in his character and care for him.
While little is known of the historical Ishar Singh, “Kesari” creates his story through the use of flashbacks and imaginary conversations with Ishar’s wife, Jeevani Kaur, who is played by Indian actress and singer Parineeti Chopra, who also sang the female version of “Teri Mitti”, the patriotic Hindi song featured on the soundtrack of “Kesari”.
Nor is it only Ishar Singh who gets fleshed out. While obviously we get to know less about the other Sikh soldiers, we see their camaraderie and learn about their hopes and aspirations in a natural manner throughout the course of this movie.
‘Nothing much happens’
Ishar’s arrival at Saraghari Fort disrupts the easygoing life the Sikhs have been enjoying there. Ishar first meets Naik (Corporal) Lal Singh, who is in charge of the fort, and Sepoy (Infantryman) Gurmukh Singh, who is the youngest at 19. Gurmukh is the lamp operator or signalman, because Saraghari is a heliographic communication post that passes messages from Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan, which are a few miles apart and not visible to each other.
In this humorous introduction to the men of the fort, whom Ishar punishes for their lack of discipline, we quickly get to know the different Sikhs.
A furious Ishar asks them: “Is this what soldiers are like?”
And Lal replies on behalf of his men: “No, sir. Actually, nothing much happens here. All we do is pass on messages from Gulistan to Lockhart, back and forth. You could say it’s like a post office.”
Throughout the course of the movie, we learn bits and pieces about each Sikh through their conversations and interactions. There’s Lance Naik (Lance Corporal) Chanda Singh, who from the start distrusts Ishar and insists the British have sent them the wrong man — one who will get them all killed. There’s Sepoy Jivan Singh, who is always trying to tell a joke to Sepoy Bhola Singh, because he never laughs. Later, we learn that because of India’s caste system, Bhola and his family were considered animals, which is why he was so touched by the respect shown to him by an old Pashtun woman.
Dying as free men
Details like these humanize the Sikhs and make them individuals, rather than anonymous soldiers who are doomed to die. We also get to know the cook Khuda Daad, who loyally serves them, laughs with them, and dies with them, even though he could have escaped. This makes their deaths all the more tragic, because we know each person who is dying.
For a movie with such a grim subject, “Kesari” also employs a lot of humor to good effect. And of course, what’s a Bollywood movie without a rousing song and dance number? But it all works, and serves as a chilling counterpoint to the serious aspects of the movie.
The main villain of “Kesari” is the Mullah Saidullah, whose call for a jihab unites the tribesmen and leads to the attack by a combined force of at least 10,000 tribesmen. The movie, in fact, frames this conflict as somewhat of a personal battle between the hero Ishar and the villain Saidullah from the start, which is why some have denounced the alleged Islamophobia of the film and dismissed it as just another example of Hindu nationalism.
And it’s true that the real-world events depicted in this movie are complicated by the reality of British imperialism, Western colonization, Hindu nationalism, and Islamophobia. But through whichever lens we might view this movie, I don’t think anyone can deny the bravery of these Sikhs, the breathtaking skill with which this film was made, and the compelling performances of the actors.
“Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!“