Sajjan Singh Rangroot ***
Dir: Pankaj Batra. With: Diljit Dosanjh, Yograj Singh, Sunanda Sharma, Caroline Wilde. 139 mins. Cert: 12A
Pankaj Batra’s Punjabi melodrama combines a new angle on the Great War with an old-fashioned appeal: a broadly fictionalised commemoration of those hardy Sikh fighters who served in the British Indian Army, it flits between the usual barrack-room bonding and memories of girls back home before launching into final-reel shows of heroism and sacrifice. Musical-megastar-turned-actor Diljit Dosanjh – in a move we might now call “doing a Styles” – plays the eponymous Singh, a free thinker schooled to fight the cause of independence, but forced to do his bit by his father, a grovelling lackey of Empire, in the hope of achieving greater career progression.
Rachid Bouchareb’s WW2-set Days of Glory may have been an inspiration: our heroes must navigate the xenophobia and condescension of those who would have them march at the back of the battalion, and thereby prove themselves first among equals. The script floats one intriguing historical supposition – that men such as Singh signed up because they thought the Brits were more likely to grant them freedom if they fought together – but Batra generally prefers working with tried-and-tested war movie tropes: the trench dance number is a novelty, but when one recruit speaks longingly of future plans, we instantly know he’s done for.
It’s aiming for undemanding, foursquare matinee viewing rather than anything probing or lasting, and stumbles persistently into one pitfall: several overdubbed Brits display the speech rhythms of people more fluent in Mandarin than the mother tongue. (Oddly, these UK-shot sequences seem to have had no trouble sourcing credible Germans.) Still, Dosanjh does the uniform proud, there’s a nicely lived-in supporting turn from Yograj Singh as the Sikhs’ commander, and Batra hits most of his big emotional beats, rightly sensing there might be something stirring and striking in the sight of beturbaned warriors charging across a field in Belgium.
Sajjan Singh Rangroot is now playing in cinemas nationwide.