It's masala...It's art house...It's...

...Lagaan (2001)?! Several weeks ago, Beth and Memsaab discussed ingredients of masala film. The genre has existed in Bollywood for a long time, and I found their approaches to formulating the lists of ingredients, here and here respectively, very interesting. We believe some ambiguity is almost inherent in judging what constitutes a typical such film. Combine this approach to defining films of the genre with their frameworks (which I believe are fair indicators of what Beth calls 'foundation masala') and my favorite film, and the result is a series of questions that is inevitable: Is Lagaan a masala film? Is it an art house film? Is it neither? Or is it both?

But before garnering feedback on these questions, let's 1) note that just went live (for Aamir Khan's upcoming pure masala film), 2) check out this video of Aamir speaking very rationally on the Mumbai terror attacks, in which he alludes to subdued Eid festivities (almost non-existent -- that was the case at the mosque I attended here in Los Angeles today as well, with black armbands; black is the last color worn on happy occasions) as he also discusses he's really not in the mood to release a film, and 3) go through some of the masala ingredients (as noted in the lists referenced above, in no specific order) and identify specific instances in the film, primarily with respect to the unsung hero of Lagaan, its background score.

The score is brilliant and as significant as any other component of the film in transporting the audience to Champaner of 1893. A. R. Rahman directs it, and this post is dedicated to his loyal sound engineer H. Shridhar, who passed away last week. I'm assuming you have seen the film and refer to characters and not actors (there is this series of posts with more, including notes on the cast).

A special note of thanks to Suresh Kumar for allowing me to use the wonderful audio clips -- if you're interested in background scores, you'll enjoy his blog. His extensive (and fantastic) breakdown of the Lagaan background score is available at this link. Thank you Suresh!

1. Strong, bright, sunny, competent heroines
Gauri and Elizabeth qualify in each of these categories. They are competent enough to influence those around them, and are afforded background music consistent with their roles throughout the film.

Gauri demonstrates courage on many occasions, such as with the forgiveness of Lakha (more on him later). Moreover, she makes her confidence in Bhuvan known early and often. Here's, "bharosa hain mohe, tujh pe, tori himmat pe" (I trust you and your courage). This is complemented by the tune to Mitwa in the background.

She is introduced alongside members of the village, and is a fine integrator but also a traditionalist who believes in palmistry!

Elizabeth is the chief catalyst for Lagaan XI's mere comprehension of the game of cricket, let alone the outcome. She understands, in her own words, that "this is not fair," and makes Champaner's problem her own. Her introduction comes courtesy her brother Captain Russell, as he introduces her to Raja Puran Singh. The flutes in the background give her one phenomenal theme after another. Sample this:

2. Incredibly 'good looking' hero who is also 3. an orphan
Our strong, bright, sunny, competent (and I would add stunning) heroines make the decision on Bhuvan's looks easy. Add to the mix that Bhuvan has some noteworthy leadership qualities (outlined in this character sketch), and it's a win-win all round. Bhuvan is introduced during a deer hunt in which he tries to play protector. Immediately, we realize the background score to the action will be top-notch.

4. Criminal intrigue
The essence of Lagaan is the message: 'sach aur saahas hai jis ke mann mein, ant mein jeet usi ki rahe' (one whose heart carries truth and courage is who is ultimately victorious). Leading a film to this conclusion requires portrayal of the opposite of goodness. The British Raj drives injustice in the Indian sub-continent around 1893, but it is Captain Russell who takes the intrigue to above and beyond what is considered even by his leadership as adequate and acceptable (but within authority). His introduction comes alongside Bhuvan's in the deer hunting sequence, his theme bleeding arrogance:

Yardley is a member of the cantonment, and is charged with inflicting physical damage (a crime in a gentleman's game, punitive per the sport's rulebooks) on the cricket field. His theme complements the objectives of the film:

5. Unrequited love

The Gauri-Bhuvan-Elizabeth love triangle is incredibly well integrated throughout a film that is hardly a love story at its core. Gauri's jealousy theme is indicative of her growing concern of the bonding of Bhuvan and Elizabeth.

And Elizabeth's growing love for Bhuvan is consistently leveraged, courtesy the beautiful orchestral version of 'My heart it speaks a thousand words'.

A similar vibe is eventually incorporated into her admission of love for him.

This from the very last scene almost always reminds me of how "life is not fair" :'(

6. 'Ridiculous' plot
The head of a cantonment challenges a group of villagers to a cricket match, the outcome of which would determine the extent of revenue the cantonment would generate from the region. Even with minimal risk, *that* is ridiculous by every definition. The background score is effective in setting the scene when the challenge is issued by Captain Russell and accepted by the naive villager who dared to dream. It really is as dramatic as the previous sentence indicates! :D

7. Buddies and 8. Henchmen
Bhuvan's best buddy is the mute Bagha, who is among the first to join the team (coincidentally, the persons who play Bhuvan and Bagha are very good friends in real life). Bagha portrays emotions through his dhols (drums), and the score fits in.

The antagonists have their share of buddy relationships -- Russell and his henchmen do the honors.

9. Dishoom Dishoom
There is not as much of this as in a typical masala film, but it does exist at a few key junctures, not the least important of which is when Bhuvan touches the ball by the boundary lines.

This is also the second meeting between Russell and Bhuvan, here are the soundbytes.

10. Family Drama
We could probably have a post and list dedicated to what family drama really is as well. If it is defined as drama around families, it is there.

If it is defined as drama family audiences can enjoy, it is there. If it is defined as drama that involves a greater family that is a community of villagers in a greater region, it is there. A natural extension to the ridiculousness of the plot, the themes in the climax capture the drama well, complete with the Ghanan Ghanan theme, most fitting.

11. Reunions
A key ingredient of the climax is the reunion of sorts between Bhuvan and Gauri. They shared a lot before, but here is where we see their most intimate physical display of affection (listen to clip under #10 above), following the song O Re Chhori (here's the fantastic theme) earlier in the film:

12. Tears
I swear the first time I saw the cricket match in Lagaan, it was no less engaging as a real intense cricket match. You know, the kind in which the Indian team makes us shed tears of sorrow and joy, all in a few hours. The kind that gets us to cheer each shot or wicket. While the film has plenty of tears from start to finish (no rain in an agricultural society that has to pay taxes despite not being able to afford food would do that), let's just focus on the cricket match here. The blood, sweat, and tears that go into the preparation for and execution of the three days worth of play were well connected. The background score is effective in conveying the many moods associated with the match. There is bhangra when Deva the fast bowler from Punjab takes the final wicket...

...but moments of despair abound. Every time a wicket falls for or runs are scored against the Lagaan XI, there is music that invokes sympathy, such as this:

Bagha the drummer's wicket has very specific music for the purpose, consistent with his favorite instrument:

13. Children
It is only fitting that the first recruit to Bhuvan's team comes courtesy a friendly practice session (his first) with a child named Tipu. Tipu bowls, and Bhuvan's first hit is long and high enough to strike the bell at the temple atop a hill (the music portrays the joy in that specific instance). This gives the team Bagha. Here's Tipu's theme, which includes the tune to the fight song Chale Chalo:

Tipu also serves as an alternate runner (for Ismail) in the match, which leads to some of the most crucial moments. Here is his theme from the match, which segues in seamlessly as the Lagaan theme from the original soundtrack is integrated into the score.

14. Disguises
There are more that just freedom fighters in the guise of cricketers in the film. How about the cunning Lakha as he goes to the enemy to tell of the 'gori mem' (white madam) who secretly helps the villagers?!

Here's his theme:

He is eventually forgiven, and redeems himself in the match. But he does suffer a brutal blow for his loyalty switch.

15. Villain's lair
When it isn't the headquarters... was Russell's abode. #4 above has the theme music to go with this.

16. Antics/Comic side plot
Antics guide comic relief here, and the music backs them up. Examples include Bhura and his chickens, and Goli and his unique bowling style (imagine a baseball pitcher with that action!) -- here's Goli's theme from the match:

Another example is Kachra, whose unique bowling method is also used to induce light-hearted moments which are delightfully used:

17. Impassioned speeches on behalf of the poor, outcast, or disabled
Kachra is crippled and it's this trait that he uses to the advantage of the team. He does not get his place in the team until an impassioned speech partly related to his physically impaired state (and having more to do with his caste) convinces everyone else to let him play alongside them.

This theme from my favorite song of the decade, Mitwa, follows the speech.

18. Quaint villagers living in harmony
This is exactly what the song Mitwa calls for. Unite and believe. They must live in harmony (if only during those last two days of the match) to achieve so much.

19. Religious Symbolism
Lagaan XI has a spiritual leader who is introduced in the same scene as Gauri (see section on heroines above). But Guran the fortune teller is only one of the avenues of religious symbolism. The cricket ball (in #11 above) strikes the bell at the temple. Captain Russell asks the Raja to consume meat, despite knowing of religious prescription recommending against it. Lakha seeks refuge inside the temple. The fight song Chale Chalo, in which the team is shown training, flows into the temple. The case for truthfulness and justice is made in context of religion. And recruits to the team such as Ismail, a Muslim, join the team upon realizing, as dialogue suggests, that 'they are not oblivious to the value of their prayer'. Again, the tune to Mitwa is selected to hit home the message of integration -- indeed, Lagaan XI does have representation from various religions and ethnicities.

20. Devotional song
The film has one of the best Bhajans (they're all great, but full marks to its integration here) in recent memory (perhaps ever), O Paalanhaare, with vocals by Lata Mangeshkar and Udit Narayan.

21. At least one weeping mother

22. Amulets
See Lakha and Bhuvan under #s 12 and 15 above, respectively.

23. Great Songs
The music to Lagaan is brilliant, but you knew that already. Here's a post dedicated to the soundtrack. Each song carries an independent identity but is collectively in sync, if that makes sense, especially in the context of the film, during which it is seamless.

The question:
While there are some items noted in the source lists that do not apply to Lagaan (e.g. cabaret/item number, outrageous/shiny sets and costumes, double roles, misplaced family members) there are enough to ask whether it is:
  1. a masala film,
  2. an art house film,
  3. neither, or
  4. both.

There are plenty of masala ingredients, but the coordination of the film, its resolute meaningfulness in over three and a half hours, its attention to detail, and its unwavering commitment involving controlled and dignified chaos is well beyond what we see in masala film.

What do you think?

Lagaan has obviously earned overwhelming success in all markets. Art house cinema lovers have enjoyed it tremendously, as have masala lovers. It is the best-selling Bollywood film DVD of all time, and it's only fitting that the film that carried that distinction in the past -- Sholay (1975) -- is one of the biggest ever pure masala blockbusters, and stars arguably the King of Masala film, Amitabh Bachchan, whose voice is the very first we hear in Lagaan. The background score only contributes to the brilliance of a complete film, one that is legendary in its greatness.

Hope you are all having a great week. Many best wishes your way for a happy Eid! And hope that you enjoyed bits of this fantastic background score. It really is the secret ingredient, as Po's dad in Kung Fu Panda (2008 -- it's great and out on DVD) would say!

And finally...
I never describe Lagaan as a film on cricket (that's not what makes me like it, as much at least), but I am a sports fan, and this past weekend I was at the Rose Bowl for this. The stadium has hosted several Super Bowls and college football title games, and even the final of the World Cup of soccer. If you're a sports fan and have a chance, go!

On a related note, there's nothing quite like having our federal income lagaan dollars sponsor the upcoming Rose Bowl game, is there?


Anonymous said...

Your love for this film has never ceased to amaze me. You Lagaan nut, you =)

Anonymous said...

Nope, in my masala world Lagaan doesn't count. It's simply...too highbrow :-)

But that is only in MY masala world. As you say: it's quite subjective!

And how I love love love "O Paalanhaare"'s the song that got me interested in Hindi film music.

theBollywoodFan said...

Anonymous: The movie has never ceased to amaze me. The more I see it, the more I love it! 'Lagaan nut' is therefore not at all out of question :o)

Memsaab: As I read through your list and Beth's, I was thinking of Lagaan and was quite surprised at how many ingredients it contained! I agree with you, though -- the film *is* too highbrow to be considered masala in my world too. Maybe at the intersection (#4) then?

That's a very substantial impact that 'O Paalanhaare' had, great! You know my story with this film -- it got me back to watching Hindi cinema. I imagine it (or its music) must mean as much to many, many more.

Anonymous said...

For me Lagaan is definitely masala - though more intelligent, coherent and way better crafted than the 70s films that seem to be the benchmark of foundation-masala. Perhaps this should be a new genre - "new" masala!

As you point out - the plot is ridiculous. Its not enough that a junior officer has the authority to cancel a whole village's taxes, the film then goes on to rely on the Britishers' sense of fairplay (the umpire is British but unbiased and the officer keeps his bargain upon losing!!??) for the happy outcome. In further masala-ishness, it does a great job of channeling (what I think of as) Hollywood masala - remember the awesome Victory?

So, while I love Lagaan, I wouldnt classify it as "arthouse" because that tag (for me) requires a more believable plot (besides having no song-n-dance numbers ;-D).

theBollywoodFan said...

Bollyviewer: Lagaan set all sorts of benchmarks, and the style of filmmaking was one of them. Whatever it is, I'm on its bandwagon. I can't see it being as popular without these masala ingredients. Yet, it is so not a masala film at its core (and not art either). So I like your term for the intersection leaning toward masala, 'new masala'. Or even 'intellectual masala', perhaps?! :)

The plot was ridiculous enough that the film almost didn't get made! Aamir initially refused Ashutosh Gowariker's offer. Then Shah Rukh refused, and then Abhishek Bachchan. So Ashu went back to Aamir, and the rest, as they say, is history. (All this is from the book, The Spirt of Lagaan, by Satyajit Bhatkal.)

I haven't seen 'Victory', and will try to. Thanks. And yes, in India of 1893, people were losing lives because of lack of fair play, let alone being asked to pay more taxes or having them forgiven! (Probably true of India today in some respects.) But that's what I think made it all so delightfully entertaining -- it's way out there, but so well done, enough for me to take the narrator's word that Bhuvan's story was "lost in the pages of history"! ;)


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

Lagaan, a masala film? It is definitely a complete entertaining film but I wouldn't consider it a masala type of film.

Spieces' (masala) films are actually comedy films, I think. Lagaan is a serious movie so calling it "complete" maybe better.

BTW, how do you upload music clips?

Filmi Girl said...

I'm with Bollyviewer! By my standards, Lagaan is definitely post-modern masala! Rather than coming from a Manmohan Desai masala, though, Lagaan is based in the Manoj Kumar style of masala - like Roti Kapada aur Makaan.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

LOL on the amulets. You have outdone even yourself!
All the best!

ajnabi said...

I had never thought of Lagaan as masala, but you've made a great case! Okay, I definitely have to re-watch the film.

theBollywoodFan said...

Sabryna/Alena: Thank you for visiting regularly and for your comment! I hope you continue to find the content worth reading. :)

Saurabh: It's an interesting question, isn't it? I, like you, don't consider it a typical masala film. It's far from it. But what's very interesting is the number of masala ingredients it does have (assuming there is such a thing as 'masala' film). Got me thinking, and probably has some truth to it too. Definitely agree on its completeness. And the music clips are basically embedded, just like the YouTube videos.

Filmi Girl: Thank you! See comment to Bollyviewer; if it seems I'm trying to have it both ways with this argument, it's probably because I am :) If we could formulate a theory explaining Aamir's consistent success this decade, I think this would be my contention -- that he's found that middle ground and is becoming an expert at exploiting it to the benefit of his viewers (and himself, of course)!

theBollywoodFan said...

Adab Sita-ji: Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I can't get enough of this film! :)

Ajnabi: As I was saying to Filmi Girl above, I'm starting to believe that's been Aamir's approach to cinema of late. The middle ground argument doesn't work as well with something like Taare Zameen Par, but sure does with Lagaan and Rang De Basanti (as opposed to Mangal Pandey and Fanaa, which are closer to masala than these two). Having said that, the intensity captured in each case is very convincing. And if he truly believes that there is no art v masala film, it's all one big bucket, then Lagaan might just make for good case study material.

I'd love to know what you think upon re-watching!

Ellie said...

I'm falling in with the theory that Lagaan is at the intersection of masala and art-- the heavy dose of masala is what makes it such fun to watch, and the message at the core is what makes you feel like the four hours were more than just fluffy fun (as opposed to, for example, "Om Shanti Om," which I adored but which is pure fluff). By the way, can masala be applied to American film? We just watched "Sholay" for the first time (awe-some) and it made me think of "Magnificent Seven," which seems to me had a bit of masala element to it. Maybe that's why I liked "Magnificent Seven" more than other westerns? :)

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Ellie! It's an interesting theory, isn't it? I was as startled with it, but it makes sense. Aamir usually packages the fluff with some interesting core message. That's not to say he doesn't do pure fluff -- 'Raja Hindustani' was his biggest commercial success at the time of its release (pure fluff and commercial success seem to have a directly proportional relationship). And his upcoming Ghajini is, in his words, his first 'all-out entertainer' this decade.

Sure, I don't see why the masala film concept cannot be applied to Hollywood films. Sholay is truly awesome, and I haven't seen 'Maginificent Seven', but you have me curious :)


Anonymous said...

It's great that you have written all this, theBollywoodfan. I have asked for Lagaan dvd for Christmas and Lagaan cd for my birthday. I have, of course, seen the film before, bit it was a rented copy. I shall re-read your post after I have watched the film again. And before as well, probably. Thanks!

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Joss: What great Christmas and birthday presents! Happy birthday in advance! I'll look forward to your comments then.


Anonymous said...

It's good to see someone celebrating Lagaan (or any other film) so much. Hats off for a wonderful post, Bolly fan. As for the question, my thinking is similar to yours, maybe a bit of both.

theBollywoodFan said...

Anonymous: Thank you! It was a lot of fun compiling this information, and the content from Suresh's blog was just so fitting. Lagaan will always be one of the very finest films in my books, at least. So much to enjoy and celebrate! :)

lalsub said...

Hi this is eles, from the AK blog.Have discovered this blog from latest issue of Filmfare.
Lagaan to me is a perfect mix of art and masala.Never boring in spite of its length. Ashu's finest to date.
To those who have not watched these:Watch the film's making 'Chale Chalo' and the accompanying book Spirit of Lagaan(which has a lot more material as compared to Chale Chalo).Satyajit's book is one of the best in its genre.
Another would be Anupama Chopra's book on the making of Sholay. Haven't read it, though.

theBollywoodFan said...

Eles! Welcome and thank you for your visit. I, of course, agree with you completely on Lagaan, that it is a rather fantastic mix of art and masala!

I also agree on Satyajit's book The Spirit of Lagaan (wrote about it here) and the making, Chale Chalo, which was a phenomenal complement to the book, which I read first (discussed the documentary here).

Haven't read the book on Sholay either. Thanks for the heads up!