Cast: Akshay Kumar, Parineeti Chopra, Edward Sonnenblick, Ashwath Bhatt, Jaspreet Singh, Vivek Saini, Vikram Kochchar, Toranj Kayvon, Surinder Vicky,Vansh Bharadwaj, Sumeet Basran, Mir Sarwar, Rakesh Chaturvedi Om, John Haughton

Director: Anurag Singh

Rating: * * *

It’s the season for Patriotic cinema garbed in history making valour. After having survived the maniacal fault-lines of a ‘Manikarnika’ we get drawn right down and bloody into a battle for Sikh pride, based on 1897 battle for Saragarhi that was waged between 21 Sikhs of the 36th Sikh Regiment under the British Army against 10,000 marauding Afghans. This fictitious rewrite of history highlights the humiliation of the Afghan Mullah at the hands of Havaldar Ishar Singh (Akshay in prime regimental form) as reason for the war and is smartly protected by a blink-and-you-miss disclaimer (in small letters) that comes up before the opening credits.

History of course has a different and more pertinent version. The frontier between colonial India and Afghanistan in the 19th century was a place of danger and unrest and given the growing hostilities between Britain and Russia, the British were forced to create piquet posts like Lockhart, Gulistan and Saragarhi to protect their interests in the region. Britain’s efforts to bring the tribes of the Samana, central Asian region, under British rule were not so successful though and that eventually led to the last stand at Saragarhi.

So other than the heroism of the 21 Sikhs, almost everything in between is imagined. Even though largely fictitious, screenwriters Anurag Singh and Girish Kohli draw up a validating landscape of elements with ingenious asides for this show-piece battle.

Like Manikarnika, this film is also not about Indian Patriortism – it’s merely a turf war that sprung-up because the natives (Afghanis) were unwilling to become subordinates to a foreign rule. It’s but obvious from the title itself that Anurag Singh and his team were more inclined to lend it a strong saffron tone. So the jingoism and pop-patriotic fervour in the representation is a given.

Ishar Singh opens up the act with a daring rescue of a runaway Afghan bride Gulwarein (Toranj Kayvon) about to be beheaded by Mullah Saidullah (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om). The British are not amused by his interference in local issues and the consequence is Ishar’s transfer to Saragarhi where apparently nothing really happens. He, of course has to eat his words soon enough because the Mullah has managed to enrol warring leaders – a local tribal chief (Hari Om), Khan Masud (Mir Sarwar) and Orakzai warrior Gul Badshah Khan (Aswath Bhatt) in his battle for lost pride.

The writers pad up the bare bones plot with a lot of fanciful canon fodder. They even have a ‘Koi Shaque’ outcry replicating ‘Where’s the Josh’ of URI. Singh gets into the act of training and disciplining his Sardar counterparts Taklu (Jaspreet Singh), Sipahi Jiwan Singh (Vivek Saini), Gulab Singh (Vikram Kochar), Naik Lal Singh (Survinder Vicky), Lance Naik Chanda Singh (Vansh Bharadwaj) etc. and readying them for battle – one which he ostensibly, doesn’t think is coming.

Before that, his journey to his new outpost is interspersed with brief spells of fantasising about his gharwali Jeevani Kaur (Parineeti Chopra) and later on in the thick of battle the camera steps out intermittently to showcase Ishar’s compassion for his fellow warriors. While the positioning of actors in every scene is dramatic, battle scenes are beautifully choreographed and inventively structured, there’s no consistency to be had in tension build-up because the director basically wants Ishar Singh to be the hero of every moment.

Even authentic moments of heliograph messaging (viz. Morse code) kind are few and far-between. Editing is a bit slow on the uptake resulting in time-lags that defeat the need for a taut, sharp and pervasive narrative structure.

Anshul Chobey’s cinematography basically sets out to create portraits of these great icons of Sikh history and he does so with resplendent authority. This film may have limited claims to authenticity and historical accuracy but even so it manages to put up a commanding battle for likeability and the credit must truly go to the leading players (especially Akshay) who showcase their sincerity and conviction with overwhelming authority!

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