Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lagaan, the Red Carpet to Bollywood

Well, more like a yellow carpet since that's the predominant shade used in the film, probably to emphasize the presence of the desert. But yellow or red or green (since I am in IIFA mode, in case that needed clarification), Lagaan seems to be one of those films that got many people into Bollywood and this is perhaps a good opportunity to talk about why that is.

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.


dustdevil liz said...

Lagaan was my first Bollywood film, and I think you hit a bunch of points for why it was such a good intro for me:
-the cinematography
-the dances: I hadn't really thought about the fact that the songs/dances were all fairly folkloric/historically accurate, but now that I think about it, the fact that they seemed very rooted in the time and place made it much easier for me to enjoy them as a newbie.
-religion and tolerance-even though I rolled my eyes a bit at all of the players representing different religions, castes, professions, it was definitely a familiar trope from Western movies, so I was able to enjoy it in an educational way.

Radical said...

Lady...why is Raghuvir Yadav's still from Peepli Live in this post?
[sorry for dumb query...]

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Liz, yes, I really think there are a lot of elements that Lagaan hit right in the head in order to appeal to a Western audience, funnily enough without even trying. We're used to period movies and we tend to be more tolerant of their extended length as well as their good versus evil philosophy than with modern films and I think that helped Lagaan a lot. That's why I personally thought Jodhaa Akbar would have been a great choice to send to the Oscars in 2008, but I guess the higher powers did not agree. Either way, Lagaan is pretty high up there, so it's really hard to sum up in one post what makes it so special. :)

Hey Vistrit, not a dumb query at all, my point there was probably a little convoluted. It's because I was saying that it was great to rediscover some of the actors from Lagaan later on in other movies, and I really liked Raghuvir in Peepli Live (even if the movie was not my cup of tea) so I figured he was a good example of someone I keep my eyes open for after having discovered him in Lagaan :)

me said...

A great summary of an excellent movie, thanks! For me, Lagaan was almost the first BW movie I *chose* to watch (accompanying desi neighbours to movies I can't even remember as a kid along with my family doesn't count), but my reason for getting into it was the one that barely gets mentioned - cricket. I am awe of your writing skills, seriously, that you could construct such an excellent review and only use the word "cricket" twice.

I grew up with cricket and my Anglo-India father used to listen to Test matches on the radio in the middle of the night. IPart of that growing up was being very aware of India's passion for and great skill at, the game, and that was what drew me to Lagaan first. The idea of watching a movie about an India in which cricket wasn't almost the de facto national religion, when Indians had to learn cricket, instead of just inhaling it from the air around them, was the lure for me. And the lure worked!

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! That's a really good point, maxqnz: the sport that India is now famous for being taught to Indians in this film. I love that!

Honestly I didn't mention it because for me as a very recent Bollywood convert, the cricket side of it was certainly not a draw, in fact, more of a reason to procrastinate watching it. So while I did think after my first watching that the cricket scenes were very well done (even for me as a complete cricket n00b: they never failed me in explaining exactly what was going on), that wouldn't have been the reason to recommend it to someone who doesn't watch Bollywood. Though obviously, based on your experience, this could totally be a selling point for some. :)

So yeah, I guess I'm thinking for most people the description "4 hour movie about cricket" would have less appeal than "a period movie with Indians vs the evil British Raj, and some cricket in it" :P Plus you know, I don't like many sports films, personally, so for me it's interesting to explore why this particular one holds such appeal.

But glad you liked the review :) And thank you for this new angle about cricket in Lagaan, it really made me smile, as such little moments of irony usually do!

Bollywood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Swati Sapna said...

Lagaan - My favorite film ever. I do think its as perfect a film as we will ever get in Bollywood :)
Trivia - Do you know that like the eternal Harry Potter vs. Lord of the Rings war, there is always a Lagaan vs. Gadar war? Yup, released same day same year, and some people claim that in North India, people were lining up to watch Sunny Deol in action from 3 in the morning while there were no theatres screening Lagaan.
Also this whole debate about who deserved the Best Actor awards that year - Aamir or Sunny Deol!
In my mind there is no doubt - Lagaan is better cinema. But the debate over which is a bigger hit still goes on... :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Heya BollywoodFan, no apologies required, as you can see I've been extremely slow in replying myself.

To give credit where it's due, I think the Oscar nomination may have had a lot to do with so many people seeing it. I remember the theatres were packed for Slumdog after it won all those Oscars (months after it released) where before no one even cared about it. These Oscar thingies seem to be a really powerful marketing tool :P

And my reaction to the question people asked you after seeing it: "Haha! But I bet any Indian boy would still care about mom's approval even in the 21st century" ;)

You're right about the aim perhaps being set higher than just the loacl theatres, but many producers aim for overseas success and they put in visible effort to achieve it and still fall flat on their face. Lagaan doesn't strike me as a visible effort. I'm sure the aspiration was there (after all, someone would have had to enlist it for the Oscars to begin with), but nowhere does the movie compromise in order to appeal to Western tastes. Which of course is what we've been saying all along: the harder they try the more they're going to fail if they compromise.

Last but not least, I will take Munna's dancing over DJ and Pandey if I may, the biscuit is actually choreographed in that one and I am too easily won over by good choreography :P

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Swati! I never knew that. And it seems that just like in the LotR vs HP war, I am only inclined to see and appreciate one. So I've never seen Gadar, but now it almost sounds like I should :) Even if the Deol brothers are not exactly my thing.

But the debate is clearly skewed since, well, not that I'm the greatest example, but Gadar never even made it on my radar while Lagaan was among the first movies that I looked for. Which kinda makes me conclude that Gadar may have been a hit, but certainly not a big enough one to last..

Anonymous said...

excellent movie of Amir khan played the best role in this movie.thanks for your post about this movie here.
Hindi Movies 2012

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