How Akshay Kumar's Kesari overplays the Khalsa's kesri in bhagva climate

There are many missteps in the controversial war movie. But there is still one reason I would thank Akshay Kumar for Kesari.

 |  6-minute read |   24-03-2019
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Dear Akshay,

You owe your fame partly to Sikh themes. Unfortunately till today though, you mostly represented Sikh characters either absurdly or weirdly out of place.

In Singh Is King, to my mind, you lampooned the proud Sikh identity — your Singh Is Bling was worse.

akshay-collage_032419125131.jpgThe portrayal of Sikhs in Bollywood films has evolved. But far from fast enough. (Photo: DailyO)

But there is a reason why these films were made in the first place.

A sizeable — and lucrative — Bollywood market exists overseas. It's dominated by Sikh deep pockets across the developed world on both hemispheres.

Bollywood woke up to this economic reality as little as 20 years ago. It began experimenting with Sikh themes as the Internet age flourished and the world shrank into a global village.

But it too had to evolve.

The rise of Diljit Dosanjh as an iconic star and a social media celebrity led Bollywood to shed the readymade fake topi-turbans that Akshay Kumar wore eccentrically enough in Singh Is King.

Actors in Hindi cinema started tying turbans in impressive styles for an authentic on-screen look.

But the hangover from the tasteless portrayal of Sikhs in movies like Raja Hindustani and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai persisted. The massive film industry located in India's financial capital — barring a few exceptions — still lacks the skills and the intellectual sophistication to project Sikh history, characters and subjects discerningly in movies.

It continues to succumb to interpolations, stereotyping — and the political climate of the day.

Thus, to my mind, Akshay Kumar's Kesari stands out as an example of needlessly infecting what was a tremendous act of collective valour in the British Indian army.

What turned me off in Kesari

The first turnoff is the main lead's wig-type fake beard.

Kesari is set in the late 19th century — 1897, to be precise. 

Getting the details right was not so difficult.

Akshay, if your topi-turban was one of the eyesores in Singh Is King, your make-up in Kesari, as I see it, did no favours to the valiant Sikh sergeant you play.

You needed no major tuitions in history here. A quick glance at the archived images of the 36 Sikhs of the British Indian army could have encouraged you to sport a realistic — and appealing — countenance.

beard-collage_032419125741.jpgThe Battle of Saragarhi took place in 1897. Getting the details right wasn't so difficult. (Left: Kesari still, Right: 36 Sikh Regiment, courtesy: Capt Jay Singh-Sohal) 

Given the importance of the role, you could have invested some time in growing your beard naturally. But apparently, you didn't. Instead, you chose the same Singh-Is-King topi-turban short-cut for your facial hair and compromised the towering character of Saragarhi.

But, dear Akshay, your role in Kesari is bewildering for more than one reason.

Your Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Pad Man were indisputably in line with the Modi government's sanitation program. They carried a positive message. Good.

But Kesari, despite its captivating final hour and artwork promising commercial success, barges unreasonably into religious and ideological realms.

Why Khalsa's kesri in the film Kesari?

Why insert the Khalsa's kesri into what essentially was a battle between a disciplined British Indian army and Pathan tribes of the North West Frontier Province?

From my conversation with researchers in the modern British armed forces, I am convinced it was an unwelcome interpolation into a historic battle.

Saragarhi — Not a Sikh-Vs-Muslim Battle

Inadvertently, or on purpose, the movie gives a Sikh-versus-Muslim colour to one of the greatest last stands in international military records.

The infusion, to my view, does seem to be playing to the bhagva gallery of present-day powerbrokers.

If that's true, let me remind you that the Khalsa's kesri is not bhagva, both visually and symbolically.

The original kesri Sikh flags — called Nishan Sahib — were basanti or yellowish in hue, not reddish or bhagva.

Also, it was not a 'dharam yudh' for the Khalsa when 21 soldiers of the 36 Sikhs of the British Indian army stood their ground gallantly and fought to the death against 10,000 marauding tribesmen.

Rather, it was the soldierly spirit — courage, commitment and loyalty — of the Khalsa that worked inherently.

No one changed — or had to change — their army's dress-codes to invoke something dormant for some religious battle ahead. But you did it while playing Havildar Ishar Singh, the leader at Saragarhi.

In reality, the 21 soldiers fought with their splendid khaki turbans of the 36 Sikh uniform.   

Researchers in the modern British army I spoke with also reject as fiction scenes showing Sikh soldiers building mosques around villages in Saragarhi in Kesari.

"They would not have gone into the Muslim villages or indeed built masjids; they had many more tasks to perform in shoring up the defences of their own positions and in their camps," says Captain Jay Singh-Sohal, a serving member of the British Army Reserves and writer and producer of a ground-breaking documentary on Saragarhi.

Further, Akshay, while playing Havildar Ishar Singh, you are also shown leaving the post to hold a dialogue mid-battle with the enemy forces.

mosque_032419010607.jpgWas there time to talk to the enemy? Historians are debating certain sequences shown in Kesari. (Representative still from the movie)

I am sorry but that didn't happen in documented history.

"As for the talks, it was not for the Sikhs to parley with the Pathans -- they had strict orders to follow," Sohal told me. "The Pathans did give overtures that they could leave in safety, but these were given from afar and certainly not face to face."

Bollywood takes its own liberties with some communities and histories.

But why tamper with facts already so rich — unless there is possibly external influence?

That said, I thank you, dear Akshay, for Kesari. The tale it weaves around the real Saragarhi story has engaged audiences.

At a time when critical thinking is being muzzled, we are debating how not to mindlessly absorb everything that Bollywood churns out in the name of artistic licence.

And that's a good thing. 

Also Read: Kesari is a triumph of acting, action – and Akshay!

Writer

Harmeet Shah Singh Harmeet Shah Singh @harmeetss

The writer is Editor with India Today TV.

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