Lagaan is the story of a poor village in 19th century India, a team of misfits, an obnoxious British officer, and a cricket match. But really, it is so much more than that!
I saw Lagaan somewhere at the beginning of my Bollywood career myself, probably among the first 10 Bollywood flicks I ever watched, so while I can't credit it with my conversion, I do give it full credit for my long lasting love affairs with Aamir Khan Productions and Ashutosh Gowariker (one of which ended rather abruptly recently, but a lady never tells, of course). It's funny that it is such a big draw for us non-desis, especially since this movie almost didn't get made for fear that it would be a commercial flop. Such is life it seems: the moments when you expect to fail you pass with honours and then other times when you think you have it in the bag, success just runs past you. I could swear I enjoy listening to the story about how Lagaan got made and succeeded against all odds about as much as I enjoy actually watching it and seeing the cricket team win the match.
As I was sitting thinking about why this movie is such a big draw, it occurred to me that the reason why it holds such appeal to non-Indians is precisely its Bollywood-ness. I've been meaning to write a post about why I love Bollywood movies for a long time, and Lagaan sure seems to make great examples for many of these reasons, so why don't I do just that?
:: Cinematography ::
Beyond my love for good dancing and good music, the other main reason why I started watching Bollywood in the first place was the cinematography. No Bollywood movie ever looks dull and almost all Indian film makers have a unique talent for capturing the splendor of their country. It must be genetically ingrained and certainly an effect of being born in a country so dazzling, so colourful and so diverse, because very few other film makers from other backgrounds excel in this particular domain. Indian movies are so arresting that they will stop you dead in your tracks, in awe at the sheer beauty of it all.
Lagaan is without doubt the perfect example of that. Despite the fact that the story takes place in a very arid region, almost a desert, every frame has just the right composition to make for a stand alone painting. And as if that were not enough, the era was captured so beautifully and with such accuracy that it's not hard to get lost in the little huts or in the stony fields. Maybe some of the characters are sketched a little uni-dimensionally, but the atmosphere sure is captured in 6D from the boots of the British officers to the breeze blowing in Elizabeth's room in the fort.
:: Us Versus Them ::
Any movie goer worth their salt can see through the set-up of the evil British commander versus the poor honest Indians, so that hardly counts in the film's favour. But it's still endearing to watch, as it is with every movie that has patriotism at the core, just how devoted the villagers of Champaner are to their parched soil. Besides, who can not relate to a story about teaching the invaders a lesson, however small it might be?
|Particularly when it's this guy to the left that's getting taught a lesson|
:: The Song and Dance ::
I mentioned it before and I'm sure I have whined in the past about how seldom it is we see Aamir Khan dancing as fabulously as he did in Lagaan, but it really is worth dedicating a paragraph to the songs in Lagaan. An eclectic mix of religious and mythological elements, folk choreography and passionate lyrics, the songs in Lagaan are such great storytellers that if ever the rest of the movie disappeared through some wicked act of witchcraft and only the songs would survive, we'd be able to reconstruct the story just from watching them.
:: Cultural References ::
Another reason why Bollywood has had such a strong impact on me is it connects me to my love of cultures. There is nothing more fascinating than discovering another country's traditions and quirks and Indian movies do an incredible job in weaving theirs into the narrative. No two cultures will get their strength and substance from the same elements, and for the Indian culture, O Palanhare is a very telling example of what its building blocks are. It's not just the gods, as the beginning of the song would suggest, it's prayer, mother nature, song, and (perhaps most importantly) each other, they all weigh in evenly.
:: Religion and Tolerance ::
Lagaan makes a point of bringing up all the typical issues related to religious and caste discrimination. And in doing so, it also sends a message of peace that clearly is very close to Ashutosh Gowariker's heart (since he reinforced it later on with his "Jodhaa Akbar"). In fact, many film makers are fond of it, which makes it one of the most popular subtexts in many films. Sure it's just a wee bit heavy handed at times, but hey, would it be any more subtle in a Hollywood movie? I don't think so! And once you think about it, isn't this the type of message that should be spelled out, loud and clear especially in today's crazy crazy world?
:: Great Acting ::
Of course, no movie would ever make it into my heart if the cast didn't put it there. The chemistry between all the actors, the lengths that the whole team went to in order to speak, act and feel like their respective characters, it all comes through in every frame of the film. It's not just the main actors either, it's the whole cast, and it's been such a pleasure following some of the supporting actors in other films because they certainly proved their worth even after Lagaan.
|Raghuvir Yadav in Peepli Live|
:: Good Drama ::
I'm not a fan of over the top drama, but Lagaan seems to pack just the right amount, and when it goes over the top it's perfectly justified: these villagers are fighting against oppression for crying out loud, getting desperate is understandable. As opposed to, you know, getting all bent out of shape because your son married some girl you didn't approve of, which, you guessed it, does not count as "justified". Any movie that gives me drama in just the right amount will be a winner in my book, and certainly many films in the last decade have done that. Looking back now it truly seems like it all started with Lagaan.
They said in 2001 when the movie came out that Lagaan took everything Bollywood and turned it on its head. Perhaps... but in doing that, it simply revolved around its Bollywood heart, keeping it in the right place the whole time.