'Lagaan,' India's Sports Drama Musical About Colonialism, Feels Like A Religious Experience

(Welcome to A Passage to India, a new series where we explore great works from all over South Asia for unacquainted viewers. In this edition: we take a look at India's last Oscar-nominated film, the cricket-and-colonialism musical Lagaan.

Few theatrical experiences compare to Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan, which, in the summer of 2001, had audiences cheering in cinemas as if they were watching a sporting event live in a stadium. A film that earns its mammoth 220-minute runtime, the period epic plays like a film by David Lean — fitting, given the title of this new /Film series — fine-tuned for sensibilities of the mainstream Indian audience. It's a meticulously calculated piece, yet one that flows naturally, springing as if fully formed from the Earth, grounding musical formalism in folk celebration while telling a tale of historical fantasy.

Lagaan brings together three distinct pseudo-religious Indian institutions: the mainstream Hindi (or "Bollywood") musical, the passionately revered sport of Cricket, and the oft-deified Indian independence movement, resulting in a potent cinematic nexus. Set in the village of Champaner in 1893, several decades prior to India's freedom from the British, the film tells of a heightened confrontation between poor villagers under Colonial boot-heels, and the officers who torment them — verbally, physically and financially. The village hasn't seen rainfall for several seasons. Its downtrodden farmers, led by cocksure protector Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) are desperate to be relieved of their taxes to the Crown, which have been doubled this year on a whim. They're presented with an opportunity when one Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne of Arrow fame) arrogantly challenges them to a game of Cricket, a sport with which they're unfamiliar.

Should the villagers win, they won't have to pay a single grain of tax, or "lagaan," for three whole years. Should they lose however, they'll have to pay the usual tax three times over. "Triple tax," as Russell enunciates in the Queen's, crossing his "T"s with his sharp tongue. Or "Teen goonah lagan" as he spits, with venom, in his uncouth, anglicized Hindi.

Once Upon a Time in India

Lagaan was released at the turn of the century, but it beats with a vibrancy that feels distinctly old-world. It exceeds as a visual ensemble piece on par with Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, with a constant eye for framing its crowds and core characters in ways that speak to the film's historical dynamic. Where do these farmers stand in relation to the might of the British Empire? What effect has this struggle had on their relationships to one another? For the most part, these questions can be answered in a given scene even with the film on mute.

Each member of the team, his strengths and weaknesses, is established long before cricket even enters the picture. We meet protagonist Bhuvan, a skilled marksman who loves deeply, throwing stones at wild deer to prevent them from being shot by British hunters (this is also where Bhuvan first draws the ire of Captain Russell). Back in the village, we meet sling-shot extraordinaire Goli (Daya Shankar Pandey), who goes on to confuse the British players with his rapid arm-movement and his neighbor the poultry farmer, Bhura (Raghubir Yadav), whose experience chasing chickens makes him an expert catcher, as well as duplicitious woodsman Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), fiery blacksmith Arjan (Akhilendra Mishra), hefty drummer Bagha (Amin Hajee) and so on, each of whom ends up being pretty handy with the bat.

Bit by bit, each skeptic is brought on board with elements of Bhuvan's mission, from his acceptance of Russell's challenge — had he not agreed to the match, they'd still starve while trying to pay twice the tax — to his impassioned insistence on enlisting disabled "untouchable" Kachra (Aditya Lakhia), a sweeper from an oppressed caste that the more closed-minded villagers don't want to mingle with, owing to the way he spins the ball when he throws. By the time the match rolls around, three months later, the team just about knows how to play.

Luckily, they have some help along the way from Deva Singh Sodhi (Pradeep Rawat), a Sikh ex-soldier from the British army who knows the sport and hates the colonizers with a passion, and from Russell's own sister, the kindly Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who knows just how much of an asshole her brother is being to the destitute farmers. Elizabeth ends up falling for Bhuvan, himself caught between his feelings for Elizabeth and village beauty Gauri (Gracy Singh). The love triangle doesn't quite go anywhere — the cricket match ends up dominating the film's final 90 minutes — but it certainly manages to flesh out each character by colouring their motivations, trapping them between their romantic feelings and their larger sense of duty.

Music and Motion

Bhuvan and Gauri's rocky romance leads to the stellar fire-side musical number "Radha Kaise Na Jale?" ("How Can Radha Not Burn With Jealousy?"), equal parts playful and contentious, in which the duo enacts the religious folk tale of Lord Krishna and his devotee Radha (a pair who didn't end up together but are still worshipped as one), as a song-and-dance metaphor for their own relationship. While the duo's other song together ("O Rey Chorri") includes what might be the only bit of music that doesn't really work — Elizabeth exclaiming "I'm in love!" — the brief interlude feeling out of place becomes something of a point. It's followed, deftly, by dream sequences of both Elizabeth dancing with Bhuvan in the village, and Bhuvan with Elizabeth in the ballroom of the British cantonment. Melodious though their movements may be, it's clear that Bhuvan and Elizabeth don't belong in each other's worlds.

Like any good musical, each song is an extension of character and circumstance. Each cut and camera movement is purposeful, taking characters into larger and larger groups that reflect and magnify their mindset. Whatever the story's trajectory, Lagaan is constantly focused on how each character fits into a larger tapestry. The film's first number, "Ghanan Ghanan," plays like a prayer. It begins when mute drummer Bagha sees rainclouds approaching — Bagha starts off several of the film's songs, as if he's speaking through the music of his drum — and it continues as each villager gets to musically exclaim their wishes for the oncoming monsoon. But it ends abruptly, mid-dance, when the clouds pass overhead and sun beats down once more. As if disappointment, in a musical context, takes the form of silence and stillness.

When Bhuvan sings and dances to "Mitwa" ("My Friend"), he does so alone in order to convince his fellow farmers of his mission, asking them what they have to fear when this land, and its sky, belong to them. One by one, as the verses go on, they each join him in dance until the music crescendos and screen is filled with movement. If stillness is the enemy, collective momentum is the villagers' greatest strength.

While Lagaan is, broadly speaking, a "sports movie" — though Gowariker went to great lengths to hide the fact — it's first and foremost a character piece. Its first and only training montage doesn't come until two hours into the film, and even then, the Cricket itself is barely the focus. The song "Chale Chalo" (by A.R. Rahman), an anthem about the victory of good over evil, booms over images of the Champaner eleven, singing as they become more and more in-tune, running, training and even praying in unison, whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. The film's theme of unity is perhaps summed up in a line from the aforementioned Rahman track:

"Toot gayi jo ungli utthi

Paanchon milli to ban gayee mutthi."

"The finger that stands alone, breaks.

Five of them together make a fist."

The Perfect Storm

Lagaan is designed for an audience that watches Cricket, though knowledge of the sport isn't necessarily a prerequisite. It certainly helps, but the narrative perspective belongs to villagers, who go into the big match without a complete understanding of the sport and learn its nuances on the day, with the cinematic language carrying the elements of the sport that might otherwise need to be explained to the unacquainted. Whether or not you know the specifics of which batsman's proximity to the wickets gets him declared "out" during a run, a player sacrificing themselves so another can stay in the match longer hinges on how this moment plays out — in this case, in slow motion and cutting between desperate close-ups.

In that regard, exposition arrives only when the information becomes relevant, often during the match itself, and the actual skill required to excel at the sport is made to take a back seat. Instead, the virtues the film holds dear aren't so much how this game is played, but by whom and their reasons why. It's a good-versus-evil story wherein the villagers' passion, and the fact that they have more reason to fight, takes precedence over sporting logistics.

While its narrative structure certainly allows non-Cricketing audiences to follow along, the film's removed take on the sport itself is part and parcel of its success. In many South Asian countries — mainly India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, all of which were once under British rule — Cricket occupies an almost religious space within the culture. Gowariker unearths this aspect of the sport by setting several scenes (and an entire song, "O Paalanhaare") in or around a Hindu temple, as characters often pray to their respective higher powers to help them overcome the odds (it's also inside the walls of a temple that a character has a pivotal change of heart when it comes to the game). In the process, the film literalizes the religious element of Cricket fandom by making rooting for one's team and praying for cosmic justice one and the same. It might be an uncritical take on religion, one that ignores the existing communal divisions of the era that bled over into modernity in favour of a simplified, united front, but the film hinges on portraying its farmland folk as more virtuous, and thus, more deserving of victory.

The villagers certainly have their interpersonal issues, but for the most part they're the de-facto "good guys" when contrasted with the British officers. Even Indians who have sided with the British, from former soldier Deva, to Elizabeth's translator Ram Singh (Ram Singh), to the sly, jealous Lakha, to local ruler Raja Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) are each given the opportunity to side against them, earning a sense of narrative redemption. The de-facto "bad guys," on the other hand? They're bad to the bone.

Paul Blackthorne's Captain Russell is an irredeemable bastard, one of the most ruthless villains in modern Indian cinema. Blackthorne learned a significant amount of Hindi for the role, though here he speaks it like a newcomer filled with disdain, talking down to those around him as he forces a vegetarian to eat meat just for the fun of it. He's deliciously evil, as are his lackeys within the hierarchy (referring to Indians as "slaves" and "darkies"), and the motivation for Russell's villainy is perhaps the cherry on the sundae: absolutely nothing. There's no trauma driving him, nor any complexity that makes him worthy of empathy, but for the consequences he may (rightly) face if his side loses. He's evil because he's racist and arrogant. He looks down upon the Indian villagers as worthless, and his racism allows him to carry out his job with callous efficiency.

Characters like Deva and eccentric, disheveled fortuneteller Guran (Rajesh Vivek) are thus entirely justified in their vocal hatred for whiteness, an institution that stands on their throats demanding taxes, respect and the acceptance of violence towards them all in the same breath. The tool the villagers use to oppose them, satisfyingly, is their very own sport. Cricket, which was brought to the subcontinent by the British, has since been left behind, and while it remains a mainstay of British culture, it's been made uniquely Indian, uniquely Pakistani, uniquely Bangladeshi, and so on (the same goes for most Commonwealth nations that play it). The film taps in to this passionate reclamation that has since become intrinsic to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cultural identity (the three nations were one under British rule).

Not only does Lagaan use Cricket as a tool to fight colonial oppression, further claiming the sport from its originators and giving this reclamation a virtuous motive, it mythologizes the birth of India's love affair with Cricket. In this fictional version of history, we bear witness to what is not only the first Indian cricket match, but a war for independence from white colonialism, thus recontextualizing one of Britain's biggest cultural contributions to India as sport-based combat stolen from their grasp, with virtue deciding the victor.

Lagaan turns Cricket, often a proxy war, into an actual war, and garners the requisite audience support by using socio-economic liberation as its stakes. The film remains enthralling seventeen years after the fact, even if one knows its conclusion, as watching it feels like watching a matter of life and death unfold with the utmost grandeur. A window into some of the most widespread facets of the Indian cultural psyche, and most importantly, a joyous time at the movies.

Lagaan is available on Netflix