The Sikh Soldier, co-directed by Joseph Archer and Sky Cheema, is a drama set during The Great War (World War I) which depicts the experience of Mohinder (Sky Cheema), a Sikh man from the Punjab, who joins the war on behalf of the British Empire after they promise Indian self-rule. The film is historical in scope but deeply personal in nature, addressing the competing motivations for joining the war: glory, honor, wealth, freedom and peace. It deals with the history of the British Empire, its poor treatment of the Indian population, both during and after the war, as well as the horrors of the conflict itself. The Sikh Soldier is an affecting story, particularly in its use of tight and dark locations and sensitive handling of harrowing subject matter. The film scrapes the surface of an immensely ranging, yet previously overlooked, experience.
The film excels in its handling of complex themes, which include war, religion, empire, family and Indian / British identity. The film has breadth and depth, addressing moments in history, most notably The Great War and Jallianwala Bagh massacre, as well as the pressure that the war (and British policies) put on individuals, relationships and communities. While the writing of these themes isn’t always particularly subtle, sometimes characters state things unnaturally outright, they are introduced and developed well in a short amount of screen time.
Through conversations between Mohinder and his parents, Rani (Praveen Riat-Sond) and Balbir (Irvine Iqbal), we understand some of the possible motivations that led to Indian participation in the war effort. His father alludes to the more self-interested potential for glory, honor and wealth, while Mohinder concentrates more on the ideals of peace and freedom. Mohinder’s mother provides some perspective, describing the emotional, physical and spiritual toll that war can have on a man like her son. The film also does a good job of introducing elements of the Sikh experience in The Great War, while also moving through the narrative relatively quickly. Mohinder is singled out for his eating and lifestyle choices, as the Sikh soldiers face discrimination and physical aggression from other members of the British army. The Sikh Soldier complicates good and evil in a way that is deeply human.
The film makes great use of tight and dark spaces. The trench location, hand built by director Sky Cheema and his family, feels cavernous and yet constricting at the same time, particularly when an unexpected attack leaves the soldiers fighting for their lives. When watching, you really feel the claustrophobia of the environment, the inescapability of the violence from outside and the discrimination from within. There are also some well constructed transitions in and out of the trenches, often through curtains and sheets, which gives the film a drifting and ethereal nature even amongst harsh concrete realities of war.
The performances in the film generally impress, effectively communicating the emotion and turmoil necessary to move the story forwards. Cheema, as Mohinder, captures some of the wide-eyed idealism in the belief that the fight for freedom would arrive through participation in the war effort, as well as the doubt and confusion when the peace doesn’t arrive as quickly as planned and his sacrifice doesn’t seem to bring his parents closer to him. The other technical elements of the film, cinematography (Matthew Riley) and score (Jodie Grayer), are solid if a little sanitized. They perform the necessary functions but fall short of creating a really distinctive audio-visual style. There is room for the film to be more radical in its technical storytelling, especially given the intensity of its themes.
The Sikh Soldier is an empathetic and challenging film that exhibits a deep knowledge of its subject matter and a heartfelt dedication to authentic performance and set design. The film, with a tight runtime, manages to do justice to the Indian and Sikh experience before, during and after The Great War, while also acknowledging the extent to which it is impossible to cover the entire scope of the subject. In many ways, it is a film about the psychological pressure and internal conflict of choosing to act whilst juggling your family, your country, your religion and your values. The film does not collapse into simplicity, but maintains its moral tension well. The Sikh Soldier is an important story. . . told with tenderness.