Ashutosh Gowariker: I aimed for the sky with Lagaan
On the occasion of the Hindi cult classic Lagaan completing 20 years, director Ashutosh Gowariker discusses the themes of unity and togetherness in his film, and the global reputation it has earned si
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan completes 20 years today. A modern classic, the Aamir Khan-starrer film has a vast and storied legacy. It even went on to be only the third Indian film to get nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It won numerous awards across the globe, and here, it was honoured with as many as 8 National awards.
On the film’s 20th anniversary, Ashutosh answers questions about this enduring film and speaks of what went behind crafting this cult favourite.
Lagaan continues to be loved, respected…
It’s fortunate that Lagaan has stood the test of time. I feel elated, humbled, overwhelmed... The first dream of any filmmaker is that their film be remembered. However, we cannot achieve this with each film. I am really grateful that Lagaan is still being watched and appreciated.
Your films before Lagaan (Baazi, Pehla Nasha) had not worked well. Where did you summon the inspiration to conceptualise such a risky project?
This was quite easy for me as I had nothing to lose. My shop as a director was already shut. I had begun focussing on acting. I remember there being a lot of apprehensions about Lagaan at the time. We were not supposed to make period movies, sports dramas, rural stories…. There were so many preconceived notions, and the script did not fall into acceptable boxes. But we didn’t think we needed to tick any boxes. And so, I was free.
The film was shot over six months in Bhuj, Gujarat, a gruelling terrain.
With my production designer, Nitin Desai, I traveled across several states—Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan—to search for the right village. We needed a terrain that was arid but within that aridity, we sought beauty. When we found Bhuj, in Gujarat, we were fascinated. We knew about the soaring temperatures and all the hardship that awaited us. But it was well worth it because it seemed like the perfect setting for Champaner in 1893.
A core theme in your film is the message of unity and national integration. Talk to us about this idea of a team coming together in adversity.
I am fascinated by the idea of India. There are so many diverse cultures, religions, socio-economic strata. And despite all that, somehow, we are still able to co-exist. There are a few differences that get converted into larger issues that take the limelight. But somewhere, we still manage to stay unified. I am interested in stories that talk about people coming together despite their differences. In Lagaan, thematically, I was able to explore this.
The film’s global reputation goes beyond the Oscar nomination. It’s been appreciated in far-flung corners of the world. Why do you think Lagaan translates so well across cultures?
There are three reasons. First, it’s a story of the oppressed standing up against the oppressors. Second, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit. Third, it’s about, as we discussed, unification. These are all universal themes. I remember when the film was screened at Locarno, Switzerland, for a crowd of 8,000 people who were all from European football-playing nations. And yet, they applauded, and we won the Audience Award. They were one with the farmers in the film who were fighting their oppressor.
A number of people associated with the film have passed away in recent years: choreographer Saroj Khan, Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, dialogue writer K.P. Saxena, actors A.K Hangal and Rajesh Vivek. Anything you would like to share in their memory?
While starting to make the film, I had a wish-list in mind. I was a filmmaker whose previous two films had not worked and yet, I was aiming for the sky. Fortunately, I was able to get all of them on board. If the film is still being celebrated today, it’s not just because of the script and direction. It’s also because of the immense contribution of all these people. The film lives on, and I would like to share this 20th year milestone with them.