"The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism - colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism. Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness - nationalism - which informed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements... [This historical writing] fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite, to the making and development of this nationalism."
- Ranajit Guha, "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India", Selected Subaltern Studies
Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) is perhaps one of the most visible and oft-celebrated Indian films ever made, and for good reason. Even those moviegoers largely unfamiliar with cinema from South Asia can still make reference to that "long Indian movie about cricket". The film is a rare specimen in that it was able to enchant audiences and critics alike, scoring mightily at the box office in India, winning every national award in sight, and riding that ecstatic word of mouth all the way to the 2002 Oscars (it is only the third film from India to receive a Foreign Language Film nomination, alongside Mother India and Salaam Bombay.) Unabashedly steeped in the conventions of commercial Bollywood cinema (a near-four hour running time, musical dance numbers, unrepentant melodrama), the film also serves as an impressive critical intervention in South Asian historiography without ever becoming inaccessible or lofty. In fact, the temptation to simplistically (even condescendingly) frame it as a Bollywoodized "David versus Goliath" feel-good cricket fable has been so tempting that many have overlooked the significant implications made about colonial India, native resistance and the long road to Independence in 1947. For this reason, I open with Guha's tremendously influential words because they hint at the lens through Gowariker represents and gives a voice to the ignored subaltern. Call it the anti-Gandhi if you will: these agrarian farmers of Champaner resist not with swords and fists in the tradition of those mindlessly violent and easily swayed masses, but with cricket bats and a fierce determination to resist imperialist greed.
As the film's narrator (Amitabh Bachchan) informs the audience, it is 1893, and British rule is well established across South Asia. Champaner, a small village in the state of Gujurat, has been suffering through a period of crop-stunting drought for two years. This is a cause for major concern for the entire hamlet, as the villagers are obligated to hand over a third of their agricultural produce as tax ("lagaan") to their Raja (seasoned actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda). In turn, this tithe is handed over to the British, who offer the Raja military protection from neighboring feudal lords. When a cocky young farmer from Champaner named Bhuvan (played by Aamir Khan) catches the ire of snotty Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) from a nearby British cantonment, the stakes are raised. Russell, bored with the unadventurous status quo, makes a bet with the desperate villagers. He will forgo lagaan for three years - not only for Champaner, but for the entire province - if they are able to beat him and his seasoned teammates in a game of cricket ("gilli danda" for the villagers). If the Champaner contingent loses, they will have to pay three times lagaan to the regent, along with the rest of the accompanying villages in the region. Naturally, Bhuvan's fellow villagers are absolutely outraged at his agreement to these terms, but our hero has conviction in spades. Russell's kind-hearted sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) opts to secretly help the Champaner team with learning the game, hoping to even the playing field between the two sides. The rest of the film explores how Bhuvan assembles a team of eccentrics, falls in love with the lovely village belle (a fesity Gracy Singh, making her screen debut) and negotiates oppression, prejudice and difference (in and outside of the village.)
Lest one forget, this is also a through-and-through musical, with six such interludes sprinkled throughout. However, these enchanting songs (composed by South Indian maestro A. R. Rahman) play an active role in pushing the narrative forward, and are not employed as burdensome time wasters. The stunningly choreographed "Ghanan Ghanan" is a show stopper in which the entire village celebrates in anticipation of a thirst-quenching and crop-saving rainstorm which never quite comes. In "Mitwa O Mitwa", Bhuvan sings a song of camaraderie, empowerment and hope in order to convince fellow villagers to join the gilli danda team (some choice lyrics: "Listen, O my friend, what is this fear you have? This earth is ours, and so is the sky!"). "Chale Chalo" is a rousing, percussion-heavy call-to-arms (or call-to-cricket-bats) in which the villagers prepare for the fateful game. And in my favourite song and dance sequence, "Radha Kaise Na Jale" (translated roughly as "How can Radha not be jealous?") Bhuvan and Gauri playfully act out the courtship of the goddess Radha by the Lord Krishna. She doubts his dedication due to his roaming eye for the gopis (cow-herding village girls), while he maintains that her jealousy is utterly unfounded. Of course, Gauri's invocation of Radha here is a thinly-veiled cover for her suspicion that Bhuvan has fallen in love with Elizabeth. It is not far-fetched to argue that deleting the songs for non-Indian audiences in an effort to lessen the running time (a rumour circulated during awards season of that year) would severely hurt the film. At many theatrical screenings, it was not uncommon to hear applause, cheers and whistles after each song.
While Lagaan certainly carries the baggage of a beat-all-odds "sports movie" (scenes of training for the big game, confronting obstacles from all directions, and the pre-climax threat of crippling defeat all follow in typical fashion), more fun is mined from picking up on Gowariker's sly winks at his audience: the man has obviously read his theory. True, there's something convenient about the all-inclusive policy of who can play on the Champaner gilli-danda team (Hindu men, a Muslim, a Sikh, and an untouchable are all represented), but Gowariker also understands how communal and religious tensions are informed, fueled and nurtured by colonial divide-and-rule policies, not by an a priori intolerance of difference. Moreover, Lagaan's conflict is not squarely characterized in a top-down structure (solely mustache-twirling Brits stamping on those poor, defenseless brown people), but in a Foucauldian network of power relations. The issue of caste is especially key here, and while Bhuvan's passionate plea to his fellow villagers to allow untouchable villager Kachra to integrate may seem like a stretch, the film makes an astonishing statement about the nature of modernity and how culture is fluid (not a fixed phenomenon.) Bhuvan even uses ancient Hindu scripture to bolster his argument, citing examples about how the Lord Ram once ate berries from the garden of a tribal woman, and that the boatman who ferries souls in the Afterlife lacks a varna himself. Moreover, throughout the film, Bhuvan not only faces the brunt of Russell's racism, but opposition from the Raja, his village elders, and Lakha, a conspiring jealous teammate in cahoots with Russell.
Even more fascinating are the screenplay's flirtations with Occidentalist characterizations and reverse Other constructions. While Blackthorne's sneering Captain Russell essentially embodies colonial greed and violence, his sister Elizabeth is so committed to aiding Bhuvan and the villagers that she actually fantasizes about becoming a part of their community (prancing around in full gagra choli, no less!) In one of the film's winsome musical numbers "O Rey Chori", in which Bhuvan finally confesses his true feelings to Gauri, Elizabeth imagines a happy life as Bhuvan's wife and sings:
My heart, it speaks a thousand words, I feel eternal bliss/
The roses sprout their scarlet mouths, like offering a kiss/
No drop of rain, no glowing flame, has ever been so pure/
If being in love can feel like this, then I'm in love for sure!
The scene, replete with curtains flapping in the wind, white doves and loud emotions is intentionally meant to be ridiculous (much credit goes to Rachel Shelley for being such a good sport about the lyrics.) At every single screening I attended back in 2001 (three shows in total), the predominantly South Asian-Canadian audience never failed to break into embarrassed titters, and it was clear why - goras aren't supposed to sing in these movies! Gowariker in essence reverses the direction of the Gaze here; it is the white lady who is Othered here, not the exotic Indian woman. However, the degree of Elizabeth's love and admiration for Bhuvan is not trivialized as a result - in a Bollywood musical, it is only appropriate her love is articulated in song (and in English, for that matter.) At the close of her fantasy, Elizabeth even applies a bindi to her forehead, to mark herself as a Hindu woman. Rarely has the concept of hybridity and culture-crossing been dealt with so cleverly and complexly. When she and Bhuvan part for good at the end of the film, it is difficult not to feel sorrow for this romance that could not be.
Aamir Khan has always been a captivating and winsome performer, who had appeared in many late '80s and '90s romantic blockbusters prior to Lagaan. But until this collaboration with Gowariker, the steel in his eyes and the earnesty in his voice had never been showcased to such effective ends. Bhuvan, with his faultless personality, socially-progressive ideas and ever-good intentions, is not the most exciting or textured character on paper. However, Khan makes him a magnetic force, whether staring down his opponents or raising morale in his fellow teammates. In a lesser film with a less discerning actress, Gracy Singh's Gauri probably would have been relegated completely the sidelines, only appearing for a dance number when necessary. Thankfully, she is a constant presence throughout the entire film. Her character is the first to embrace Bhuvan's ambitious project, and she insists on attending all the training sessions to lend support and input. While there may be an element of misogyny in how she repeatedly falls into fits of jealousy every time Bhuvan interacts with Elizabeth ("Tell me Bhuvan, why is that White Witch willing to help you?"), Singh is able to amazingly evade caricature. She is also an expert comedian, and her full expressive eyes are certainly her greatest asset here: consider the hysterical scenes in which she worriedly spies on Bhuvan and Elizabeth discussing cricket rules.
Rachel Shelley is compassionate and moving as a British woman struggling with her allegiance and identity as an outsider wanting in. Much credit should go to the actor for convincing us that a powerful and elevated woman of status in that period, with its norms about racial hierarchy, could fall in love with an Indian peasant farmer. Paul Blackthorne's Captain Russell is not afforded much dimension beyond hatred of all things Indian, but he sneers and condescends fittingly. A cast of established character actors round out the Champaner gilli danda team, special notice going to Raghuvir Yadav as a frazzled chicken farmer and booming Rajesh Vivek as the opinionated village seer, who provides superb comic relief. Meanwhile, Rajendranath Zutshi hints at a fascinating back story as Muslim Ismayeel with his limited screen time, and Yashpal Sharma's expressions are always priceless. Also deserving of special mention is Javed Singh as conflicted Ram Singh, a servant in the Raja's palace, who allows us to understand how Indians placed in positions of authority over their fellow countrymen face complicated realities about loyalty and kinship.
As already mentioned, A. R. Rahman's work as composer contributes a great deal of information about this land and its people, seeking inspiration from rustic folk music and the structure of the classical Hindu epics. Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, who won an Oscar for Gandhi, could have easily recycled her work from that epic film, but is nicely attuned to how the Gujurati agrarian community is varied in terms of dress itself (distinguished village leaders versus the constituents of the village, the Raja's golden fineries versus the dhotis of the farmers, the particulars of Muslim apparel versus Hindu garb, etc.) The finery of Russell and Elizabeth's ensembles are never overstated, while the redcoats of the British army look appropriately lived-in. Anil Mehta's cinematography does amazing things with the flat, dry landscape of the Bhuj desert, a pronounced departure from the bleeding crimsons and dazzling sapphire blues in 1999's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which he lensed just before this film. Art director Nitin Desai (another alumnus of Sanam) and his team traveled to Bhuj four months before shooting began in order to erect an authentically period township. Editor Ballu Saluja deserves special praise for making a four-hour-long film seem like half the length; his work assembling the cricket match is especially commendable. Interesting fact: to add an additional layer of authenticity, the screenplay was written and performed in the dialect of Avadhi.
By presenting a village of peasants as political beings struggling against imperial exploitation through non-violent means, Gowariker writes back into history the voices that elitist historiography has overlooked or silenced. Nationalism then, Guha and Gowariker remind us, is not an exclusive pursuit by personalities such as Mohandas Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and others who are often credited with "leading" the Indian people to Independence. As the narrator informs us at the close, "Even after this historic victory, Bhuvan's name was lost somewhere in the pages of history." What other stories of native resistance have been suffocated by master narratives over the decades? Yes, Lagaan is an endearing film about overcoming the greatest of odds, but look closer at how Gowariker has also played the conventions of commercial Hindi cinema to his advantage. Working both as a populist crowd pleaser and scholarly dissertation, Lagaan is magical Bollywood cinema at its most winsome. A