(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.”

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