The latest Akshay Kumar starrer, ‘Kesari’, has once again triggered debate about historical authenticity, and has brought into question the credibility of the events depicted.
Well, it certainly calls for an extraordinary suspension of disbelief to accept that a mere 21 soldiers defending the fortress at Saragarhi, resisted a force of 10,000 attackers for so long, and even managed to cause heavy casualties to their opponent. But let that pass.
The more relevant question is, why should every period film or historical drama, be taken as ‘revisionist’? Why can’t such films be enjoyed (or suffered) as plain entertainment? It seems that biopics and sagas of exceptional valour set in the past or even recent or very distant history, are deliberately designed to engender controversy for either commercial gain, or to please political patrons.
Films like ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Bajirao Mastani’ all appear to fit in this pattern.
Does Akshay Kumar’s ‘Kesari’ Have An ‘Agenda’?
Along with claims of ‘diligent historical research’, such films also boast of expensive special effects, spectacular landscape, dazzling costumes and imposing sets. However, none of this can guarantee success at the box office or secure a place in the Hall of Fame for period films.
One might as well ask, aren’t films like ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ or ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’ much more authentic, even after indulging in poetic/cinematic license, than the films mentioned above? But we digress.
‘Kesari’, like ‘Padmaavat’, is ‘inspired’ primarily by the intent to massage the ego of a particular community.
It has been noted by many critics that the small contingent Havildar Ishar Singh (portrayed by Akshay Kumar) led, was not fighting for their own country or king. They were soldiers serving the British in their expansionist imperial campaign against Afghanistan. It is also not easy to forget that the British had diabolically divided India, to rule them by honouring their allies as martial races more valorous than others who had rebelled. Among the latter, some were branded as ‘criminal tribes’.
Separating History From Historical Drama
After their defeat in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the Sikhs had, by and large, remained loyal to the British, and hadn’t joined the mutineers in 1857. They, like the Gorkhas, were cleverly deployed to subdue those who had taken up arms to oust the British from India. The great Gurus had commanded the Sikhs to protect their own people and faith against threats from invaders, rise above caste and communal prejudice, and establish the rule of law, ensuring the welfare of the people in their domain.
The British succeeded in subverting the princes in the Punjab by pampering their egos with the proverbial carrot and stick. There were a number of patriotic Sikhs who offered themselves to the anti-colonial struggle in the 19th and 20th century.
This is not the place to list them all, but it needs to be underlined that the depiction of the blend of fanatical religious fervour and incredibly ferocious bravery, can be potentially dangerous. It can only distort the self-image of a community, or its perception by others.
When entertainment intrudes in the realm of political history, one must respond with caution. Special effects and razzle-dazzle can’t substitute scholarship.
Be it ‘Kesari’ or ‘Padmaavat’, why can’t we judge them on the basis of acting, direction, song and dance, without getting into a tizzy about their historical contribution or blunders?
Does ‘Kesari’ Really Push The Envelope?
Does ‘Kesari’ really push the envelope beyond what its controversial predecessors have done? Not really. There is a strong sense of deja vu with regard to special effects (‘Baahubali’ and ‘Mirzapur’ are far more stunning), and the songs are stirring only because they echo legendary relics and prayers.
Now for the biopics. From ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ to ‘MS Dhoni: The Untold Story’, a wide range of personalities have attracted director-producers. Except Shekhar Kapur, no one has shown imagination or the talent to come up with something even remotely comparable to Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’.
Lastly, with tolerance levels running abysmally low, how can one dare risk getting mobbed / lynched, by touching upon a sensitive subject?
(Padma Shri awardee Professor Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He tweets @PushpeshPant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)