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

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