The Lagaan dream
As Ashutosh Gowariker-Aamir Khan’s film completes its 20th anniversary, we untwine the legacy of this modern classic through conversations and critical insights
Lagaan began as an experiment. Ashutosh Gowariker had never directed a period film before—why, he had only directed two films earlier, and both had failed. Aamir Khan hadn’t produced a film before. The promos depicted a scorched flatland and villagers in pads. In 2001, how was this film to compete with Gadar: Ek Prem Katha? I was seven then, and remember my parents struggling to make up their minds about which film to watch. We went with Lagaan.
The film’s longevity can perhaps be best understood by how wonderfully it holds up even today. One of the first major hits of the millennium, it forged a new path forward for mainstream Hindi cinema by mixing two seemingly disconnected topics, cricket and anti-colonialism. It bridged the gap between mass audiences and the thinning intellectual crowd. It was a radical educationist’s dream: a history lesson wrapped up in play. And miraculously, it worked.
“Lagaan for me is a journey,” Aamir shares with us. “There are a handful of films that become classics – Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Sholay... I’m glad that Lagaan too has been loved by people for twenty years. Of course, we never planned for this reception when we were starting out…”
Aamir looks back at the unusual nature of the production. The film was shot over a gruelling six-month schedule in Bhuj, Gujarat. It was in sync sound, the first such attempt in mainstream Bollywood. The British actors were sourced from London and not the nearest tourist spot, as seems the case with many other films. Sanjay Dayma, Lagaan’s co-writer, attests to a mood of ‘giddy experimentation’. “I was convinced that this was more of a BBC/Channel Four-style production,” he says. “It was hard to see it as a traditional Bollywood film.”
Sanjay jokes about the film’s notorious runtime. The close-to-four-hours length is cleverly belied by its concise title. Lagaan–meaning ‘tax’ in Hindi–is a neat summation of the film’s central conflict. It’s about a group of villagers who refuse to pay the excessive agricultural tax to their British overlords. The military official, Captain Russell, suggests they settle the issue with a game of cricket. The naïve villagers are dumbstruck, but Bhuvan, an angry young boy played by Aamir Khan, takes him up on the offer, and is given 90 days in which to assemble a team.
It is a parable-like story, but the title is also significant in a broader sense. The brutal history of land revenue and taxation in India predates British rule. Almost every other empire before it thrived on the exploitation of peasantry. By the early 19th century, the English East India Company had grown ruthless in its extraction of the nation’s wealth. This was necessary for the continued spread and consolidation of the British Empire. The peasants, in effect, paid for their own conquest. “The very conditions of British rule helped the growth of national sentiment,” historian Bipan Chandra wrote. “It was British rule and its direct and indirect consequences which provided the material, moral and intellectual conditions… for a national movement.”
Resisting foreign dominance was one aspect of India’s early national struggle. Another was reform. Lagaan seems to understand this more than any other film set in that period. The character of Kachra—the village ‘untouchable’ who’s brought in as a spin bowler—is a potent yet difficult example of this. After the other villagers refuse to play with him, Bhuvan steps up. He touches Kachra’s shoulder and delivers a lecture about social integration. It’s the sort of scene that feels disingenuous today (compare it, from a few years later, to a sequence in Swades, where Shah Rukh Khan gently scuttles the ‘dividing curtain’ between opposed groups). And yes, the decision to name the character Kachra, meaning ‘trash’, hasn’t aged well. But in 2001, in a relatively caste-blind Bollywood, this was close to remarkable.
Also, Kachra’s integration into the team had practical benefits. After all, he’s the one who takes the decisive hat-trick in the opening inning, and later joins Bhuvan for the final over. “I was a leg spinner in my college days,” recalls actor Aditya Lakhia, who played Kachra. “Technically speaking, none of us were supposed to look like we could play cricket.”
Another hitch, though hardly all that damning, is the portrayal of the British characters. Captain Russell and his boys—all mutton chops and heavy accents—are clichés (and eternal memes). His sister, Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, initially comes across as a pretty-faced extra, but proves integral when she decides to help the village side. You can see her inquisitive spirit echoed in another Aamir Khan movie from down the line. In Rang De Basanti (2006), documentarian Sue moves to India to make a film on the Indian revolutionaries. Sue’s grandfather had kept a diary from his military days—a nod, perhaps, to the faceless British officials and soldiers who served their native flag, while harbouring quiet sympathy for the Indian cause.
Any discussion on Lagaan invariably becomes a celebration of its music. Initially, Aamir was unsure about the prospects, wondering if the hard-edged narrative would leave enough room for songs. The writers, however, convinced him otherwise. “We told him there were at least 6-7 songs,” Sanjay recalls. “They just had to emerge from important story points.”
A.R. Rahman’s magnificent soundtrack—still one of his best in Hindi—was rooted in this philosophy. The thunderous ‘Ghanan Ghanan’, which opens the album, riffs on storm clouds that gather but never descend. Both this and ‘Mitwa’ incorporate folk instruments from the time. Even the inclusion of ‘O Paalanhaare’, a pleasing religious hymn voiced by Lata Mangeshkar and Udit Narayan, was narratively warranted: it has a much-needed soothing effect before the final battle.
Lagaan took its basic premise from the 1957 Dilip Kumar film, Naya Daur. Inspired by one classic, it became a classic of its own. Almost every other sports film or underdog story today seems to hark back to Lagaan. You can sense its echoes in the works of Nitesh Tiwari, Parambrata Chatterjee, Mari Selvaraj... even if this isn’t to suggest any direct impact or to claim that it’s better either.
The film is a recurring model in leadership and team-building lessons. Last month, Hollywood director James Gunn named it his favourite Indian movie. The film’s poster—misfits standing in a line, shoulder to shoulder, looking battle-ready—has been recreated umpteen times.
Writer-director Satyanshu Singh has been teaching Lagaan for several years in his screenwriting classes. The film’s strength, Satyanshu says, comes from its inherent mythic structure. As an example, he points to the deployment of ‘The Threshold Guardian’ archetype. These are the obstacles, hidden enemies (the character Lakha) and adversaries that stand in the way of Bhuvan’s hero’s journey. Once he overcomes them, he emerges as the film’s saviour figure. “These archetypes are present in the best of films,” Satyanshu notes. “You can find them in The Matrix, Star Wars, Seven Samurai, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings…”
My favourite connection, though, is in a different sort of an underdog movie from recent times. In 2019’s Gully Boy, an aspiring rapper, his angry girlfriend and a rich girl get caught in a charged triangle. It’s the same dynamic between Bhuvan, Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Elizabeth. Zoya Akhtar’s film was an unabashed urban story and focussed on the rise of a single individual. Yet, in its bending of mainstream rules and ceaseless experiential energy, it filled the same space that Lagaan did in 2001. When Bhuvan confronts the village sarpanch, telling him that change will come, he’s basically saying: Apna Time Aayega! And based on Lagaan’s continuing relevance, this is an expression of hope that is guaranteed to endure.