LAGAAN 10 years on: The magic of the lunacy

Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India

Prior to the year 2001, Indian cinema screen space was primarily occupied by the run-of-the-mill popcorn entertainers, mildly interrupted by the multiplex movie – an attempt to cater to the urban audiences who were fed on MTV, Star World and international sitcoms. The Bollywood blockbuster had turned into a potion of ingredients best known to the ones who incorporated the star sons and daughters, copied scripts from Hollywood blockbusters, diamond merchant producers and South Indian technicians into the perfect recipe. Most often than not, these recipes failed, with only those suceeding at the Box Office which genuinely appealed to both classes as well as masses. The top list from the entire decade of the ’90’s-produced’ blockbusters consisted of DDLJ, DTPH, K2H2, KNPH, HDDCS and other multi-worded titles, delving deep into the world of romance and romantic storylines spicened up with sub-plots of obstacles to romance such as a father who is never pleased with a love marriage. The time was nigh for the recycled storylines to be discarded and to embrace new ideas and challenging scales of storytelling.

The year 2001 marked the rising of a new sun in the horizon of Indian cinema. June 26 2001, things were about to change dramatically. LAGAAN was released and in every sense of the term, it was a game-changer.

In this post, I will be  discussing about LAGAAN and how its influence can be seen in today’s Indian cinema. The magical glow of this cinematically brilliant masterpiece still shines bright even today, 10 years after its release, and here’s why.


Lagaan - The Day of the 10000

Let’s first focus on the sheer scale of this project. Now, I am not at all saying that grandiose elements have been absent from Bollywood. Right from K.Asif’s palatial sets in Mughal-E-Azam to the very 90’s Nitin Desai and Sanjay Bhansali Rajasthan recreation Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Bollywood has always been renowned for its ‘larger than life’ image. Even in family dramas of Karan Johar, the main hall staircase would beat the British Museum staircase hands down. But that is not quite exactly the same kind of scale that I am talking about here.

Lagaan’s scale is depicted in terms of its magnitude of imagination. The canvas for this painting spanned from the Victorian palaces in the British Raj period, to the rural huts made of clay in Champaner. The villages and their daily lives, the law and order system managed by their Sarpanch and Panchayat, and also their loyal service to the Maharaj of Champaner is depicted effortlessly in the background without any dialogues. The oppression and tyranny by the Raj is narrated to minute scenes that weave in seamlessly. And the beauty of rivalry shines through the arrogance of Capt.Russell and the heroically challenging nature of Bhuvan.

And there is the ensemble cast laid out as smartly as a masterstroke. A brief description of the wonderful cast can be read in my other Lagaan post : The LAGAAN ensemble – LAGAAN XI and more.

The second big scale that I am talking about is obviously the extras that were brought from various villages to be featured on the climactic showdown moment of the movie. It is now famously known as – The day of the 10,000. The logistics involved with handling 10,000 villagers, their food, their clothes, their exact placement and of course the desired execution of the scene – that in itself deserves a big round of applause. It indeed is awe inspiring for future generation of directors to attempt something similar or on this scale.

It probably even enabled Ashutosh Gowariker to be able to dream of bigger projects such as Jodhaa Akbar.


Lagaan - Cricket Team

LAGAAN made it into the final 5 nominations for the Foreign Film category after a very long absence from the list. The last Indian movie to feature on the final 5 list was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay in 1988. With this ‘victory’, it certainly opened up Bollywood to the international market more than before. People became more and more curious about the Indian film industry which apparently churned out more movies than the better known Hollywood. Back home, things were changing. Over the next coming years, contending for the Indian entry for the Oscars became more than just a movie competition. Things even took a political turn.

Just have a look at the list of Indian entries for the foreign film category in the 90s – It includes one Malayalam movie (Guru), 5 Tamil movies (Anjali, Thevar Magan, Kuruthipunal, Indian and Jeans- jeez! what were the selection committee smoking? ), 4 Hindi art-house movies ( Bandit Queen, Rudaali, Earth and Hey Ram) and just one Bollywood mainstream movie – RK Films’ Henna.

I believe that I am not wrong to say that ever since Lagaan made it into the final 5, the perception of Oscar being the ‘unattainable’ awards has faded. More and more movies invested in making themselves visible, not only to the NRI audiences but also to anyone and everyone who loved cinema. The global image of Bollywood had dawned. No, I am not saying it all started with Lagaan, but Lagaan surely was a huge step forward ( at least from sending Jeans to the Oscars).


Lagaan - The Win

In one of the interviews, Aamir Khan commented about how Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar (both accomplished directors in their own rights) warned him to keep away from two things in Bollywood whilst making movies – single schedules and sync-sound. Aamir now looks back at that comment and replied that these directors now implement the same techniques in their movies.

For the uninitiated, single schedule means shooting the entire movie – from start to finish – in a single schedule. Typically, that would mean every single cast and crew member to be completely committed to that single project at that time.

Sync sound means recording the sound as and when the performances are been recorded. In other words – no dubbing.

Both of these techniques were infamous for the various challenges they posed in terms of managing teams, crews, cast members, and delays etc. LAGAAN’s single schedule shooting was located in the remote village of Bhuj in Gujarat. The challenges with the windy weather, the heat, and all crew members being together at one single place meant that the assisting team had a massive project management task in their hands. And it almost is a lesson for aspiring filmmakers. I vividly remember Asst.Dir Apoorva Lakhia saying it in the making documentary – This is going in my resume 🙂


Lagaan XI

Let me try to give this a shot – A story of British ruled India where villagers of Champaner are taxed. It hasn’t rained for the last two years and hence farming hasn’t been very fruitful. A group of villagers led by Bhuvan visit the palace to appeal for tax relaxation. Arrogant British Captain Andrew Russell challenges Bhuvan and his villagers to a cricket match –  the stakes are – tax free if they win, or else three times the original tax. Bhuvan accepts the challenge, and with help from Capt. Russell’s younger sister Elizabeth (who is secretly in love with Bhuvan) overcome all odds to win.

But LAGAAN is so much more than just that. Under the main storyline of the victory of underdogs over obstacles, the many layers of complex human interactions in Indian society is also one noteworthy aspect of LAGAAN. Bhuvan’s strong opposition against caste division or the terming of a human as ‘achhoots’ is as heroic as the big victory itself. Gauri’s undying love for Bhuvan, even when the entire village is against him is what love stories are made of. And Elizabeth’s unrequited love is a tragedy on its own.

When Aamir heard it the first time from writer Ashutosh Gowariker, he said that Ashutosh had gone bonkers and such a movie couldn’t be made.

Compare this story with those of the 90s blockbusters.

DIL, Saudagar, Sanam Bewafa, Raja Babu, DDLJ, Raja, Raja Hindustani, Ishq, – Boy and Girl first fight, then fall in love. Parents are total bitches who won’t give in. But then badass Romeo and kickass Juliet triumph eventually.

Aaj Ka Arjun – Gori Hai Kalaiyan, Oppressor Thakur and rapist brother get Hero’s sister pregnant, Baby Guddu plays the Hero’s nephew, and Hero takes his Badlaa. <insert Maa Kasam> The above elements can be re-arranged in various combinations to reproduce as Koyla, Narsimha, Ghayal etc.

Get the point?

Of course, there were the Abbas Mustan suspense movies as well as the Mani Ratnam gems once in a while. But the traditional Bollywood plotline no longer existed. It was time for love stories to explore more than just revolting parents, and movies to explore the world beyond Karwa Chauths and Sangeet ceremonies.


LAGAAN cinematography

One of the most important outcomes from the success of LAGAAN was the formation of one of the strongest movie production company of Bollywood – Aamir Khan Production. With the success of Lagaan, the movie company emerged as a powerhouse of movie making, equipped to make cinema with its heart in the right place and its eyes set on the target of creating brilliant cinema. The track record for the company has so much to say for itself – movies that succeeded LAGAAN’s mantle – whether as regularly Bollywood romantic as Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, or the poles apart documentarish – Dhobi Ghat, or even Aamir débutante directorial feature – Taare Zameen Par – with every movie the company has just got stronger and stronger. Although this can be termed as a passive impact of Lagaan, it should be noted that hadn’t LAGAAN succeeded the way it did, the future of Aamir Khan productions would have been questionable.

But above all these points, the biggest impact of LAGAAN was its sincerity towards its art. It was a collection of zealous individuals from all over the world coming together to create cinematic magic. Here’s just a taste of what the magic ingredients consisted of:

Bhanu Athaiya: Oscar winner costume designer, who designed costumes for the villagers as well as the Royals, and the British Captain Russell, and his sister Elizabeth Russell.

Anil Mehta: Cinematographer, who found the ‘diamond imagery’ in the desert. There’s heat and the heat-waves, but there’s also the unforgettable golden sunset view.

A K Hangal: Probably one of the most famous character actors of Bollywood. As Shambhu Kaka, his two lines in the entire script, speaks volumes.

A.R.Rahman and Javed Akhtar: Music and Lyrics – for more of this magic, go here [ The Soundtrack of Lagaan ]

There is still so much to be said and so much to be discussed about this movie.

But I would conclude by quoting what Suhasini Mulay ( who plays Yashodamai, Bhuvan’s mother) said in the making of Lagaan documentary – We ( the caste and crew members) are all misfits. In a society which works in the 9 to 5 work shifts, we are definitely misfits because we cannot work in that routine. We are lunatics who love this – making art.

God bless such lunacy exists for it made us witnesses to the magnificence of epic storytelling. If lunacy can indeed produce such gems, who needs sanity anymore?

[ This post is a part of the 10th anniversary celebration of LAGAAN , initiated by TheBollywoodFan, this is my contribution towards it.

Please check out my previous posts on Lagaan here:

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4 thoughts to “LAGAAN 10 years on: The magic of the lunacy”

  1. Excellent, excellent! Thank you Sujoy, this is all very well said. I love the point about Lagaan being a game changer. It’s interesting how QSQT was kinda like that in the late 80s, but Lagaan of course, a much bigger impact that permanently changed the psyche of an industry, no denying that. I remember sitting in the theater when I went to see this, and knowing during by opening credits alone that this was a quality production, with no compromise on production values. That was always my biggest complaint with Bollywood films before. It’s established a benchmark, and for that, we all the more enriched.

    Also like the point about the Aamir Khan Productions in general. They’ve come a long way, and without the Lagaan launchpad, surely it would’ve been difficult. In fact, isn’t it cool that the company was founded first for Lagaan? Insane.



    Sujoy Reply:


    Of course. Nassir Hussain’s productions have always been groundbreaking in Bollywood cinema. QSQT was no exception. It was indeed in a different league from err.. say, the dakoo movies and the Ganga Ki Kasam type movies of the 80s.

    And yes, I completely agree with you on the no-compromise attitude of Lagaan’s production. Aamir went all in with this, and as it is evident in the making documentary, even if it meant delays and going over budget, he kept pushing (whilst co-producer Reena jee had panic attacks 😛 )

    Aamir Khan productions have for sure, come a very long way. If Lagaan had bombed at the box office, I believe, Aamir Khan productions would’ve turned out to be yet another ABCL type production house. But with Lagaan’s success, the production house received a major ego/confidence boost. Thinking about it, if a newly formed production house can churn out such an epic movie, it can literally do ANYTHING!


  2. Movie was ofcourse awesome, review is as always good
    but I enjoyed how you brought down other movies to the dirty smelly gutter where they actually belong.
    by the way do you remember of one single movie of ” Nehiiiii girl” hema Malini’s any other movie except Sholay (lets give little bit of credit to seeta geeta as well) which wasn’t based on similar gutter lines as the other movies mentioned above?


    Sujoy Reply:


    Hema Malini ke awesome movies are all masaaledaar types except for some offbeat parallel cinema – such as Lekin, Ek Chadar Maili Si .

    Waise, Seeta and Geeta se yaad aaya, there is a Hema Malini movie released in mid-80s called, Seetapur ki Geeta 😛


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