Review: Kesari is more an Akshay Kumar vehicle than a tribute to Saraghi soldiers

People grin for odd reasons in Kesari. When Ishar Singh, a havildar of the British army (played by Akshay Kumar) reminds the 36th Sikh Regiment at Saragarhi about how the odds are numerically stacked against them—these are 21 men up in arms against 10000—the response is uncharacteristically goofy: a soldier breaks into laughter. The upshot of this is so contagious that before long the entire squadron has succumbed to its effects, though it’s hard to say whether they’re laughing at their leader or at his ridiculously fake-looking beard.

Parineeti Chopra’s character follows suit much later in the film as well, giggling anytime, anywhere in such an obviously plasticky manner that you would think this is but a dress rehearsal for another Lyra commercial. Director Anurag Singh’s film is a strangely structured one, a eulogy that can’t quite resist an inexplicable urge to act comedic, and the entire first half of Kesari feels so spoofy that it could have benefitted from a laugh track of its own.

“Computer graphics is used to create rooster,” reads the disclaimer for the film, showing an utter disregard for precision of any sort (grammatical or otherwise) at the outset, and there’s some cruel irony to be found in the fact that it has been co-produced by Cape of Good Films. The significance of a movie titled Kesari releasing three weeks before India goes to the polls cannot be discounted, though Kumar doesn’t quite allude to the same when he delivers a laboured, Vimal Elaichi-like sermon on the many nuances of saffron. “Bahaaduri ka rang hai,” he says. “Shaheedi ka rang hai.” Alright then. Bolo zubaan kesari.

The visuals here resemble those of a video game. By the looks of it, Rs 80 crore clearly weren’t sufficient to create a credible-looking landscape, and some of the snow-capped peaks in this film, supposedly belonging to the Samana Range in the North-West Frontier Province, wouldn’t look quite so out of place on a set in Goregaon’s Film City instead.

The movie is a slog, the kind that will spawn many a meme, with lines like “Seva marzi se hoti hai, zabardasti se nahi” constantly eliciting many an unintentional chuckle, and I must have heard the word “kaum” at least five times before the screening finally (and blessedly) came to a close. “Goli yahaan tak nahi pahunch sakte,” a villain laughs when our hero aims his trigger at him, and sure enough, what follows is a bang, a thump and a thud. A pen might be mightier than a sword, but it can also be as dim-witted as one.

Singh remains King, predictably, and Kumar turns in a committed performance as a braveheart who adjusts his pagdi into position before indulging in mid-air pirouettes, slicing and skewering his enemies with a sword that’s literally forged red-hot. He takes some time off to scream in triumph (‘coz what’s a barbeque without a little celebration?), and when the number gradually dwindles down from 21 to, well, one, you think you know who the last man standing will be. The action sequences are competently staged, but it doesn’t help that Chopra shows up every once in a while, teary-eyed and lassi-lipped in a performance that relegates her to a memory. It’s painful to see the gifted Hasee Toh Phasee actress wade through murk like this, and this role, if any, is a sign of her declining box-office clout.

Hindi cinema is yet to wrap its head around what Anglicised Hindustani might have—or should have—sounded like, and the British are—surprise, surprise—presented as a bunch of gun-toting buffoons who say things like “Jab koi senior officer dikhai de to tumhe kya karna chahiye?” and “Tumko lagta hai ki tum humse better ho?”

The Afghans, of course, are mindless beasts without a conscience. This is the kind of religiously polarised enterprise that paints an entire community in sweepingly broad strokes, reducing them to a bunch of savages who drag, haul and behead women when they are not cleaving water bearers into two. At one point, I spotted a drummer who somewhat uncannily resembled KL Rahul (with a Prince of Persia-themed background score to boot). Bajke aaya tha, I guess.

A running sub-thread in Kesari involves a pair of roosters who are pitted against each other in a cockfight, with the members of the regiment taking turns to egg them on by clanging vessels against each other and smiling unblemished bovine grins. Those who are adjudicating are the ones that need to be refereed—a realisation that could extend to the makers of this film—and this is a movie that spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the incisors of its characters. You might be better off watching Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong croon into his mic instead. 21 Gums isn’t quite the same as 21 Guns.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Shreehari H is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.

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