Lagaan (2001)


Vastly entertaining and epic, Lagaan swirls across the screen in a combustive visual mix of gold sands and orange sunsets. Buoyed by the tremendous energy of six extravagant musical numbers, four hours go by like 45 minutes, and even a slightly unfathomable game of cricket that lasts as long as an average Disney movie is enthralling.

But the most remarkable aspect of Lagaan is its triumphant righting of historical wrongs. As a textual introduction informs us, all events and characters in Lagaan are fictional, and the film functions as a glorious fairy tale, a revised history, and a new mythology. In effect, Lagaan is a re-creation story — an explanation not of how a people came into existence, but how they remained in existence by defeating tremendous obstacles, and becoming gods of their own destinies.

Much has been made of the film’s expense (Lagaan is the most expensive Indian film ever made), scope, and length (with intermission, almost four hours). Everything about it, it seems, is huge — an enormous cast of ridiculously beautiful people, wide shots of expansive countryside, and elaborate housing for occupying British soldiers. Fitting, as everything in legend is always larger than life.

Spanning three months in 1893, Lagaan‘s re-creation mythos centers on the village of Champaner, which is controlled by a cantonment of British soldiers and their mustache-twirling Captain, Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Every year the villagers are required to pay a lagaan, or land tax, to the soldiers; this year there has been no rain and little crop yield. Young, rebellious Bhuvan (Aamir Khan, who also produced the film) takes a wager proposed by Russell: if, in three months’ time, the villagers defeat the soldiers in a game of cricket, they will be excused from the tax for three years. If they fail, they must pay three times the normal tax and so, probably starve.

Khan’s intensity makes Bhuvan a thoroughly vibrant and lucid character, and he virtually oozes sensuality and sex appeal. Although Bhuvan is not a particularly new character (we’ve seen his like in every movie made about youth-led revolution), he is compellingly earthy and spiritual at the same time. As the misunderstood leader rallying his people to resist their oppressors, Bhuvan is the center of the film’s mythos. He is continually compared to Krishna, solidifying his place as an almost godly savior figure who remakes his people into conquering — but, importantly, nonviolent — heroes. And although the cricket match is a crusade only for Champaner and its province, it is a metaphor for colonialism’s defeat throughout India.

What a glorious revolution is sparked, indeed: bloodless, joyous, and righteous. That’s Lagaan‘s fantasy, that a rebellion can be entirely good, wholly idealistic, and even beautiful (as the cricket match, drenched in golden sunlight, turns out to be). And these people, who can defeat the occupying forces with such vibrancy and on their own terms, are in no way patronized by the filmmakers; instead, their almost spiritual devotion to color and liveliness is extolled far above the “sophistication” of the British forces. In fact, Lagaan suggests that the worst British imposition upon India may have been a fastidiousness, a forced formality.

Nowhere is this better explicated than in one of the film’s exuberant musical numbers. As part of a Hindu festival, Bhuvan and his love Gauri (Gracy Singh) lead the rest of the villagers in a dance detailing the relationship between Krishna and Radha. The performance is all foot stomping, bells tinkling, skirts swishing, and smiles flashing. Abruptly the scene cuts to the British cantonment, where soldiers in dress uniform waltz stiffly with women in constrictive Victorian clothing. It’s easy to see why Captain Russell’s sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) would run from her white-uniformed guardians to help the villagers learn cricket.

While these differences between Indian and British rule are clearly demarcated, there is an unfortunate similarity in the rigidity of the two groups’ caste systems. When Bhuvan urges his people to let an untouchable play on their cricket team, his points are based on the prejudices of the English soldiers towards the Indian villagers. The harsh class lines already drawn in India, he argues, are no better than the harsh class lines drawn by the British, and thus untouchables must be accepted as equals. “Let no one bow his head / Let us walk ahead,” the residents of Champaner sing in preparation for the final showdown — progress, or “walking ahead,” comes as a result of throwing off the vestiges of “civilized” British rule. Progress, then, comes not from the “sophisticated” intruder (including a deity), but from self-examination — creation may come from a godhead, but this re-creation story is based on purely human accomplishments.

As there is, after all, no space for it in myth, irony never rears its sneering head in Lagaan. The almost flawless musical numbers are explosively happy without winks and nudges, and thus much more successful than, for example, Monsoon Wedding‘s self-aware, Bollywood-inspired productions. The one exception is the love song performed by Gauri, Bhuvan, and Elizabeth, but this is mostly due to the latter’s inability to hold the audience’s attention when alone onscreen. Rachel Shelley is pretty enough, but she seems to have taken the British stiffness thing a bit too far; when she smiles, it looks like her lips got stuck that way.

Director and writer Ashutosh Gowariker does exceedingly well in creating a new mythology, contextualized in light of global imperialism. Lagaan may be unabashedly crowd-pleasing entertainment, but so are all legends. If only all the mistakes of the past could be reworked as they are here, reality would look something like Lagaan: harmonious, sweetly optimistic, and outright beautiful.