Revealing India’s ‘forgotten battle’

Akshay Kumar
Akshay Kumar



Popular actor Akshay Kumar continues to show off his impressive range with new film Kesari.

The historical film, based on real-life events, revolves around the legendary battle of Saragarhi, which took place in 1897, in the Tirah region of the North-West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan It is regarded as one of the greatest last stands of all time, with 21 Sikh soldiers from the British Indian Army taking on 10,000 Afghan tribesmen in an uprising against colonial India.

The versatile actor has again transformed his look to take on the challenging role of a soldier leading a heroic fight. Eastern Eye caught up with the in-demand A-list star to talk about Kesari, his incredible work ethic, motivation and why this is the best phase of his career.

How are you still able to maintain such a high work rate and standard?
I’ve always maintained that if you love what you’re doing, you’ll never, for one moment, feel like you’re working. I’m driven by my passion for doing good work and that motivates me to work harder and faster. According to me, a film should not take more than 60 days to complete, maximum 70 days. I believe that if you and your team are efficient and productive at work, you can easily complete a good day’s job in eight hours and return
home at a good time, without compromising on quality.

How much does the fact that you are getting a variety of work help you?
Well, I think we all know that when I entered the film industry, I was stuck with the action hero tag for a very long time Having said that, I was genuinely grateful that I was able to carve out a niche for myself in the industry and for the opportunity to be a part of some interesting projects at the start of my career, albeit in action. But at the same time, this meant that as an artist, I was stuck in a rut, which is why you rarely saw me in any films in the romance, drama or comedy genres.

Why is that?
Sadly, no filmmaker would offer me roles in those genres. I kept working in the action genre for 14 years and there was no growth in my career until Hera Pheri came my way.
That early part of my career was a difficult phase to overcome, especially as I knew as an artist, I had barely touched the tip of the iceberg, but it was hard to break an image and challenge perceptions. Looking back though, I have no regrets as with every breakdown comes a breakthrough. I have learnt to persist, live an honest life and remember that come what may, I have my biggest anchors in life – my wife, children, mother and sister. That instinct to always press ahead comes from their belief and faith in me.

So would you agree that this is the best phase of your career?
Absolutely. The variety of projects that have come my way over the past few years has meant that I am most definitely living one of the most exciting periods in my career. I’m really enjoying my work and how it’s been received lately; there’s nothing more encouraging than when you want to do something more in this world and people around you support you. I tried to dabble in serious cinema a few times long ago, but those films were never really accepted by my audience. Now I feel people are ready to be involved in films that are more than just entertainers; they are hungry for films full of self-worth with something to sit up and admire. It really is an exciting time to experiment with what we can produce as an industry with India’s best interests at heart.

What did you like about Kesari?
I was amazed that Kesari was based on a true story, the battle of Saragarhi, which is forgotten and erased from our history. It’s the story of the bravest battle ever fought in history between 21 Sikh soldiers and 10,000 invaders in 18th century India. It’s a beautiful
story that is in honour of every martyr that has ever lived. The film depicts the bravery, values and valour of the Sikh regiment. It’s my first war drama and I was honoured to have had the opportunity to portray such an important role in the history of India.

How aware were you of the story before coming on board?
Very briefly, but I was not aware of the exact details which I think is the case with many
people today. That is why some call it the forgotten battle, as sadly it’s not something that
is taught in our curriculum.

Tell us about the film and your character?
Kesari is a true story about one of the bravest battles India ever fought, as I said. The film is a war drama that also touches on the never-give-up attitude of the Sikhs under any circumstances. I am so humbled to play one of the brave soldiers, Ishar Singh, who fought for our country and thankful to my director, Anurag Singh, and producers of the film for choosing me to showcase this story to the world.

What would you say was the biggest challenge of acting in this film?
The biggest challenge for me was to shoot in unbearable weather conditions, whether this was heat in Mumbai while wearing a heavy turban or shooting in high-altitude locales such as in Spiti, in the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. It was a grueling schedule, with a lot of intense action sequences, which was quite a challenge as it had to look real. But when you see the film and how scenic the locations are, and how well it all worked out, it was so worth it.

How much did you enjoy being back in a full-on action movie?
Kesari isn’t really an action film, but more of a period war drama that is intricately laced with high-voltage emotions. The action sequences are just examples of how those emotions are depicted on screen. When you see the action come to life on screen, you really get to experience those emotions and sentiments, which help you to empathise with those brave soldiers.

Which is your favourite moment in the movie?
There are many favourite moments; I could not possibly choose one. But many are related to the delivery of powerful dialogues that have stayed with me. They are some of the best dialogues of my career. Just reciting them gives me strength.

Did you learn anything new while working on the film?
The entire story was something worth knowing and learning about for sure. It gives you great courage and a sense of pride that’s immeasurable. Technically speaking, the action choreography was quite a challenge as we had to learn how to fight with traditional battle equipment. In 1897, the only weapons soldiers had were rifles, so you cannot shoot six bullets at once. You have to put in one bullet at a time, so that was something new we all had to learn.

Who are you hoping connects with the film?
The special thing about Kesari is that the narrative is transient. As I said, this film is an ode to every martyr that ever lived and died for their country. You become so involved with the characters and narrative that you forget Kesari is a period war drama. It’s much more than that. It’s about the human spirit, and how, in the face of adversity, you come together and gain inner strength to address any calamity. I believe the battle of Saragarhi is such a historic tale that not only the youth of India, but young people across the world also should know about the story, and what our forefathers have endured for our future. You have gone back in time for a few of your films.

Are there any other periods in history you want to explore?
Sure, I would love to make more movies like Kesari as it allows me to educate myself, my kids and my audience. India has such a rich history; I would love to explore the historical side of it further. In fact, I will soon be starting one called Prithviraj based on the life of Prithviraj Chauhan.

So how much of a history buff are you?
I was really bad in history, actually. I flopped in all my subjects except maths. I was a good
mathematician and have always been good with numbers. Since my film Gold, I have actually become even more interested in history, but while I do try to delve into some history now and again, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a historian in any sense. Kesari looks like a Hollywood film.

Will you ever make that move to the west?
I enjoy watching Hollywood films, I admire certain actors from Hollywood and other countries too. For me the film industry per se is one huge family and we’re all interconnected in some shape or form. Our content has become global, as has our reach. I am very content with my work in India – it’s my first love and home. But I’m open to hear about projects on all sides of the pond.

Which of your forthcoming projects are you most excited about?
Each and every one of them in multiple ways. We recently did a launch for my new show The End with Amazon Prime, which I am extremely excited about, it is my first web series. I can’t wait to start rolling for this action-adventure series that will be an Amazon Original for global audiences. The digital world excites me, and I am delighted to make my streaming debut with this show. On this medium, I want to create something extraordinary and connect with the youth. I also have the fourth instalment of Housefull this Diwali, which is a complete laugh riot; Mission Mangal on August 15; and Good News on September 6. You will also see me in Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi, which will be released on Eid in 2020.

What kind of films and TV shows do you like as an audience member?
I really get a kick out of watching suspense thrillers and horror films and thanks to my son now, a lot of web-series.

How do you motivate yourself on days when you are feeling mentally and emotionally 
Like I mentioned, when you love what you do and you are passionate about it, you look forward to going to work every day, and it doesn’t feel like work any more. So enjoy what you do and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Finally, why do you think we should watch Kesari?
Because it’s a true story, and it’s a forgotten and proud part of our history. It’s a story that needs to not only be heard, but also experienced for all its wonders. I genuinely believe the audience will connect with every scene and character. They will be filled with emotions and leave asking questions. And of course, because we as a team – the entire crew, the stellar cast including Parineeti (Chopra) – have put our heart and soul into this film. We hope we make those 21 brave Sikh soldiers proud with Kesari. It’s in their honour and we salute them.

Kesari is in cinemas now.