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Kesari review: This is what Border (1997) looks like in 2019

Release Date: 21 Mar 2019 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 30min

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Shriram Iyengar

Anurag Singh's depiction of the battle of Saragarhi is a massy entertainer that delivers the thrill, but don't go looking for historical accuracy.

If you want to relive the thrill that coursed through your veins when you watched Suneil Shetty carry an anti-tank mine with his last breath, or Sunny Deol blow up a tank with a bazooka, Anurag Singh's Kesari will do it for you.

Led by Akshay Kumar, Kesari is an amped up nationalism-filled action drama, except that it is based on a relatively unknown historical event. 

The reference to Border (1997) is not negative. Anurag Singh's film is entertaining for its part, and has enough punchy dialogues to get you into the fighting spirit to board a peak-hour Virar local.

The story is fairly simple. Havildar Ishar Singh (Akshay Kumar), a stoic, proud Sikh, is despatched to take charge of the Saragarhi signalling post after he disobeys his superior. Unfortunately, his arrival coincides with the Pashtun Orakzai and Pathan tribes coming together to conquer the forts and deliver a setback to the British control of the North West Frontier Provinces. The 21 Sikhs in Saragarhi put up a last stand, making it a battle for the ages.

The film is enjoyable, but builds up slowly to the battle in the second half. Obviously, it revolves around Ishar Singh, proud, stoic and out to prove a point.

Akshay Kumar plays him with a balanced intensity. His dry humour in the first half keeps intensifying till it becomes a ferocious personality during the final stand. He certainly makes the best of the action sequences, fighting with a frenzy. His death scene might have been milked too far to cause some cringing, however. 

The action sequences, a highlight, are impressively choreographed, matching up to a high standard. The frenzy of the battle and the rising background score make for an emotional watch. There is  enough blood to make Dracula drool. The scale of the film also adds to the visuals of the battle and the scenery. 

The development of an emotional undercurrent is also good to an extent. The bonding among the soldiers or the move to transform them into a secular force of peasants is a familiar but effective trick. The rousing musical score also helps build up this plot point. 

There are flaws though. Parineeti Chopra is an unnecessary character that adds little to Ishar Singh. The role is rightfully limited a 'special thanks' in the beginning itself. 

It would be unfair to judge the film on historical grounds because it begins with the now familiar 'events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes' warning. But the overt nationalism in the film feels too shrill to bear at times. The creation of a villain, a jihadist mullah who rouses the rabble in the name of religion, while effective as a dramatic tool, feels a blunt point in today's times. Perhaps the reference was to a more current mullah who is all the talk in Kashmir and Delhi lately. It goes against the fact that the Pathans were fighting the British army, which was the 'invader' in Afghanistan.

The jingoism in the film runs thick, like the VFX blood all over the climactic battle scene. The dialogue that equates the Mughals and the English as 'conquerors' while hoping for azadi is one homage to a populist political notion. The fiction also transforms an act of unquestionable courage and devotion to duty into one of Sikhs going all out for their quam, or community.

The flaws aside, the film is a reminder of the sacrifices of the soldier in times of need. While it does not replicate the possible valour of the original act, it brings it to light. The famed British stiff upper lip is prone to quiver upon reports of soldiers 'doing their duty'. After all, it was Tennyson who wrote 'Theirs not to question why / Theirs but to do and die'. That was one reason why the 21 Sikhs found utmost respect, even amounting to praise, from queen Victoria.

The Battle of Saragarhi was an event that is still compared with Thermopylae or Balaclava which preceded it. For its flaws, Kesari is pulsating in entertainment, has that rush and thrill that drive masses to a frenzy. It certainly delivers on the thrill, but that comes at the price of facts. But then, as our politicians teach us, you need to serve history with flair if you want the masses to lap it up. Those who want the facts will read a book.


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