121 years since the conflict, the Indian audience have now been introduced to 21 Sarfarosh: Saragarhi 1897, a fiction show inspired by the real–life story of 21 brave soldiers of 36th Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army who defended an army outpost at Saragarhi in the North-West Frontier Province against an onslaught of over 10,000 Pashtun and Orakzai tribals in September 1897 in what has been called one of the bravest last stands in military history.
To begin with, this show is reminiscent of the times when mythologicals like Ramayana and Mahabharata used to air and the time slots saw Indian families glued to their TV sets. Only this time it is the children compelling their parents to watch the show and they end up being captivated as much.
This story of valour of 21 soldiers had sent ripples across the world. The British Parliament had even halted their session mid-way to give a standing ovation to the martyred in September 1897 with British monarch praising the fallen heroes and saying:
“It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.”
Coming to the show, at the helm of the Indian side is Havildar Ishar Singh, who is a perfect warrior in an army of nearly perfect warriors in the 36th Sikh Regiment. He embodies loyalty to his people, dedication to protect his mother land, and exemplifies courage where other good men (*cough* Balwinder) tremble. To have your main character engage the audience 100% right from the first frame, you have to choose the best and that is exactly what they did when they gave the role of Ishar Singh to the immensely talented Mohit Raina who has already left an everlasting impression on the minds of Indian audiences with ‘Devon Ke Dev Mahadev’. Mohit’s interpretation of Ishar Singh as an unyielding man willing to do what is necessary, placing rules above even his own life, is convincingly heroic He has turned Ishar Singh into such an iconic role that it is almost impossible to imagine any other face in the role of Ishar. I believe along with his men, whole country would follow this man anywhere, no questions asked.
Ishar’s love for his motherland is matched only by the love Mukul Dev’s Gul Badshah has towards the camera, such that your ears won’t hear a word but your eyes won’t miss a movement. He is equally complimented by Mahmuddlah played by terrific Shakku Rana who brings old-school villainy to our screens where he lets his eyes do the talking, quite literally. This character will certainly haunt your nightmares.
The decent list of villains of 21 Sarfaosh also includes Henry Mayne played by gifted Danny Sura. He has made the character such that is almost impossible to feel anything but dislike towards him. He is accompanied by Balwinder Singh, played by Vikram Sharma. presented as a fantasist obsessed with Ishar, Vikram’s Balwinder Singh immediately throws subtlety to the wind and gives us a glimpse of what could happen if there was no screening test for enrollment in armed forces.
Our Ishar Singh finds his reliable cohort in Buta Singh. Balraj Singh Khehra’s Buta is a picture of loyalty and courage. His level of competence, resourcefulness, and confidence in his Havildar’s strategy is so infectious that one feels like victory is really achievable even in the face of extreme odds. And what team these two make! If Ishar is Alpha, Buta is his Beta. Their scenes will remind you of Nandi and Mahadev (we can never resist the reference, can we?)
If you make a list of understated romances and don’t include Gurmukh and Teresa on it, you’re doing something very wrong, In the midst of war tension, they share tender moments in some beautifully shot scenes with Pippa Hughes as Teresa and Bhawsheel Singh Sahni as Sepoy Gurmukh Singh. Gurmukh is shyly sweet on her but is all too unable to confess his feelings, making the audience root for both of them even more.
21 Sarfarosh also nicely unveils the motherly care Hira Singh shows towards kid Seymour, the animosity house cook has towards newbie in his kitchen, the love Luke Kenny’s character has towards his wife and towards his regiment, the grudge Sepoy Ram Singh has towards his brother Narayan Singh, and the talent Gurmukh has towards Music (and actual hero of the show – Heliograph). However the best moments of the show are always rooted in the scenes in which their camaraderie is shown; at dining hall and the bathing place to be precise.
There is a plenty of storytelling that is woven throughout the action. The soldiers of Saragarhi move with grace and a certain uniformity. You really get the sense that these are the people whose only purpose is to fight, so that the rest of their country can live in peace. Care is taken to engage the audience in the fighting tactics of each side, lead on to the action and move the camera around to provide one of the best battle scenes on Indian Television.
21 Sarfarosh has an amazing ensemble cast with strong characters having commendable grip on their dialects, adding to its grand scale, exquisite production values, realistic sets and fast paced narrative which makes every episode a satisfying watch. It showcases all the hardening experiences these young men at the post are going through, retaining some of the boyishness of their former lives. The chemistry these boys share on screen brings a certain level of comfort to watch. This ensemble works no matter who is paired up in a scene and it feels like the TV can barely contain them when all the cast comes together.
Also the premiere of 21 Sarfarosh prepares you for its finale. You know how it is going to end but still you root for all characters and pray they survive through the episode. The only dim note in episodes is the dubbing part that is quickly followed by an excellent sequence and all the earlier complaints are forgotten.
Like most good art, this show will be best appreciated by viewers who are willing to meet it halfway. It might or might not have gain the ratings but it will surely be swept with warm greetings by fans all over the world.
For half an hour daily, you forget it is just a show. It feels like a dream of what must have transpired in 1897 and that dream translates itself through the screen. It is television at its finest.
Do yourself a favor and watch this masterpiece.