Adding to Bollywood’s recent upsurge of patriotic war movies is Anurag Singh’s historical epic, Kesari. Set in 1897, the film is based on the Battle of Saragarhi — a military standoff between 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army and around 10,000 Afghan tribesmen.
The big-budget actioner is headlined by Akshay Kumar in the role of Havildar Ishar Singh, the leader of the Sikh regiment defending a signalling post in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in present-day Pakistan.
Akshay, who has been gunning to present the story of Kesari for a long time, didn’t find the project particularly challenging, thanks to his director keeping the groundwork ready. “Anurag was working on this project for more than one and a half years. He visited Punjab several times for research. He had answers to all our questions,” says Akshay.
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At a personal level, the actor describes his experience of working on Kesari as a ‘deeply emotional’ journey. “My father was in the Army and this film is also about soldiers. There are things in this movie that surprised me about the capabilities of human strife.”
Dwelling on what drove him to retell this chapter of Indian history, Akshay laments that while Saragarhi Day is celebrated in the UK in honour of British forces, there is no remembrance of it in contemporary India. He urges parents to take their children to watch Kesari for its educational value, dubbing it a ‘true story’. “We get so excited to watch a film like 300, which we all know is a fictitious film. Whereas our movie is about real people.”
Akshay dedicates Kesari to ‘Bharat Ke Veer’, a fund-raising website he launched in 2017 with the Ministry of Home Affairs to secure donations for families of martyred soldiers. “This film is dedicated to all the martyrs who have given their lives so that we can live our lives,” he says.
As a military film celebrating patriotic valour, Kesari succeeds Aditya Dhar’s highly-successful Uri: Surgical Strike, which has grossed over Rs 300 crore worldwide and continues to dominate theatres. Will the popularity of Uri — coupled with the fervent atmosphere fostered by the India-Pakistan escalations over the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot airstrikes — benefit the business of Kesari?
Producer Karan Johar remarks, “When we planned and made this picture, there was no such mood or atmosphere. This film is made with the mitti (soil) of our country. It has a big heart. If you really love your country and those who lost their lives for it, then you will relate to this film and enjoy it in any atmosphere. It’s all about the spirit of being an Indian.”
Though propelled by an all-male cast, Kesari features Parineeti Chopra in the role of Ishar Singh’s wife. On her romantic track with Akshay, Parineeti notes that their performances are sensitive to the era depicted in the film.
“Back then, holding your lover’s hand, or staring into each other’s eyes, was a big thing,” she says. “However, there’s an amazing friendship between our characters. It’s not an unequal relationship. Our director has not shown the typical, conservative idea of the husband dominating over the wife.”
Hailing from Punjab, Anurag Singh made his Bollywood debut with the 2005 romantic-thriller, Raqeeb. The film tanked at the box-office and Anurag retreated to chart a successful career in Punjabi cinema, directing popular hits like Yaar Annmulle, Jatt & Juliet and Punjab 1984.
“I was initially scared when this project was offered to me,” the filmmaker admits. “What gave me confidence was that people like Akshay, Parineeti and Karan were attached to it. If they thought I could make this film, then maybe I could.”Co-produced by Dharma Productions, A Cape of Good Films, Azure Entertainment and Zee Studios, Kesari is slated for release on Thursday.