The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 1, 2001

Khan’s maiden over
Aradhika Sekhon

ON viewing a film, if the P.M, Atal Behari Vajpayee, says ‘bahut khub’, then it’s got to be worth viewing at the very least.

Lagaan is an honest film that is a mix of the artistic elements and entertainment
Lagaan is an honest film that is a mix of the artistic elements and entertainment

A period film, mirroring the drought-ridden Champaner of 1893, Lagaan brings together the two great Indian national passions, cricket and patriotism, blended together in the third national passion, cinema. Based on an unrealistic condition that the crippling lagaan [tax] levied on the village, indeed the surrounding villages in the region, would be exempted for three consecutive years if the villagers could beat the British at their own game—cricket, the condition doesn’t appear quite so unrealistic if one views it as an allegory—the complete helplessness of the Indians before any demand put forward by their hated British rulers. There are various other allegories involved, especially if one views the film in the context of the present. Perhaps the film marks the genesis of cricket in India and the unique quality of the Indians to assimilate and indigenise any novel cultural trend that came their way.

Indeed cricket is, in some measure, examined sociologically and it’s roots are questioned when Khan asserts that it’s like the gilli-danda that the village kids have been playing for centuries.

Certainly, while the plot of the film firmly remains the cricket match between the poor farmers and the British officers, the film successfully explores various themes at different levels. "The triumph of the human spirit" confesses Aamir Khan, protagonist as well as the producer of the film, is one of these. " It’s a mix of artistic elements and entertainment. But the entertainment is not forced, it flows naturally from the script", says he.


Its surprising, indeed inexplicable, that in a country so obsessed by the game, there have been so few forays by filmmakers into this theme. Except for a couple of movies that did incorporate the game – Chamatkar, ‘Sixer’ [ironically starring Aamir Khan himself], did not create any ripple of interest either in the box-office or in the game itself. So far, the two national passions have been kept separate and even in the movies made, have depended heavily on the star value on appearances by the major cricketing stars of the day.

Lagaan, however, indulges in no such gimmickry. It is an honest film dealing with an honest theme which doesn’t deflect from it’s veracity at any point of time. Aamir Khan, playing villager for the first time in his career, does credit to the role and surprises with his mastery over the Poorvi language. Like Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna, Aamir has transformed his hitherto on- screen persona of a city-slicker into that of a slightly brash villager, very convincingly.

The village is no candy- floss Punjab village one is wont to see in films today. This one evokes images of Balraj Sahni , racing through the Calcutta streets with his passenger laden rickshaw in \Do Bigha Zameen and Dilip Kumar, who is forced to exchange his hal for a gun in Ganga Jamuna. The cast which includes, among others, Gracy Singh, Raghuvir Yadav, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Rajendra Yadav, Raj Zutshi, could be the real denizens of any dusty village in India. There’s no inherent heroism in these characters to begin with, weighed down as they are, by poverty, the climate, and their rulers, accepting every hardship that came their way passively. Yet refreshingly, there isn’t the tedium of unnecessary melodrama. This only reinforces their bravery to even attempt to play this unfamiliar game.

A very striking feature of the film is the way it undertakes to contrast the flavor of the Raj with the life of the peasant. The patronising superiority of the Britishers towards the Indian Raja and his praja and the desperate helplessness of the Indian peasantry. The impact of the contrast is never more than when both the cricket teams walk on to the cricket field on the first day of the three- day match. The British team, polished, confident, powerful, with a long tradition of the game behind them and the ‘ home team’ — a bedraggled, motley crowd, who have nothing to support them but the grit and desperation to win or to lose all. While to the British, the match is only a game, to the villagers it is a matter of life and death. Another interesting fact is the fatalistic attitude of the villagers towards the game. Surely, it is reminiscent of a similar attitude even today, for when the other team is depending on their expertise to win, the villagers donn’t forget to appease the Gods.

The racial attitudes of the audience are a study in contrast too. The stiff upper lip, the understatement and the fair play of the British audience seated under the deep verandahs, being served by uniformed, silent servants, applauding politely for both the teams. The Indian audience, on the other hand, is excitable, voluble and very expressive of it’s feelings—traditional qualities that one can relate to even today.

With many hilarious moments in the film, Khan, in tandem with the director, Ashutosh Gowrikar, manages what has never yet been accomplished on the Indian screen so far. He transforms the cinema hall into a cricket stadium and the movie audience, into a willing cricket audience, as they despair and cheer with the home team. Probably this is the first major Hindi mainstream movie that deals with a sport so extensively.

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