There were two Havaldar Ishar Singhs at the launch of Captain Amarinder Singh’s book on the Battle of Saragarhi.
While one stared down from the screen − a lion of a man with a battle-hardened face and steely eyes, the other one sat among the audience.
Resplendent in the British-era uniform of the 36th Sikh, actor Randeep Hooda cut a tamer figure. But soon it is clear that there is more Ishar in him than just the uniform.
For one, Hooda has by-hearted the character he is essaying in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s movie by the same name.
“I had to get under his skin, put myself in his circumstances. Ishar Singh, I realised, didn’t know the meaning of fear,” says the actor.
A Jat from Rohtak, Hooda says that he had no trouble in understanding Ishar’s rough and ready ways.
“I was surrounded by people who would never give a straight answer. Ask a Jat a simple question like ‘what time is it?’ and chances are that he will reply, ‘Tanne sooli chadna hai kya?’ Ishar was from the same stock,” says Hooda.
Describing him, a British General once wrote, “A nuisance in peace time, he was magnificent in war.”
Hooda pointed out as to how the Americans and the Russians had failed to tame the Pashtuns despite their huge arsenal and weapons of mass destruction.
“I was amazed to learn that Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Gen Hari Singh Nalwa were among the few people who were successful in defeating the Pashtuns,” adds the actor.
“Santoshi,” he says, “had decided to make this film as a tribute to the martyrs of Saragarhi and the Sikh soldiers. We tend to overlook the contribution of the Singhs to the North-west frontier. Our stance is ‘had there been no Singhan di fauj with its undiluted valour, India would not be in its present shape.”
Hooda claims that he had delved through scriptures to understand the motivation of the 21 soldiers at Saragarhi.
“Then, I read the lines ‘Soora so pehchaniye jo lade deen ke het’ and it made sense,” says Hooda, who has also mastered the war cry ‘Jo bole so nihal.’
Visibly fond of the character he is playing, Hooda shrugs off the questions about discomfort of wearing a massive turban with, “It’s my crown.”
“Actors,” he believes, “should create heroes for the youth.” He hopes that Saragarhi will be able to do that.
“We have had enough of Udta Punjab, we need to change the narrative now,” he says, and Havaldar Ishar Singh would have agreed.
ISHAR IN REAL LIFE
A native of Jhurla village near Jagraon, Havaldar Ishar Singh was 42-year-old at the time of the battle. He was married but had no children. Captain Amarinder Singh writes that Ishar was excellent in distilling illicit liquor and was known to borrow, without permission, ration for his men from the neighbouring units.
On the morning of September 12, 1897, about 8,000-strong Afridis (other historians put this number at 12,000) sent a peace emissary to the Fort of Saragarhi, saying that they had no animosity with the Sikh soldiers and their war was against the British, and so they could leave unharmed.
“Havaldar Ishar Singh,” says Amarinder, “replied with the choicest of abuses in broken Pashto. And that was how the battle began.”