Lagaan XI and their challenge

Competence in any sport, at any level, is underscored by one constant factor -- top-notch effort. Individuals and teams must live with whether the best effort was delivered. Best efforts don't always translate to wins, though. Sometimes, they are simply not good enough, which is when the roles of intangibles such as luck are magnified.

Like in any good portrayal of sport on film, Lagaan captures the cardinal principles of sport rather well. This is admirable, given Lagaan is not primarily a film on sport. Those films are supposed to be dictated more by how the games are played than by wins and losses (although the triumphant underdog theme is prevalent across world cinema), but for a group of villagers fighting to increase the chances they'll survive with enough to eat, taking heart from anything other than winning hardly serves any purpose. Yet, they and not Russell's men play with a sporting spirit. And that is where the character sketches that define their being are as effective and consistent as one could expect.

For the greatest match ever played not to have any [inherently] neutral members in the audience is a shame (but fair in a way -- there are only two sides to the coin of justice), because as spectators, games in which opponents give their all are the best to witness. And that is exactly what Bhuvan's and Russell's teams delivered. A see-saw battle that went down to the wire, and one that could just as easily have been a disaster for Lagaan XI were it not for a tremendous stroke of luck (how else would one explain it?) in the final over, with a no-ball (think of it as the cricket equivalent of a ball after two strikes in baseball) off the last delivery (or 'pitch').

But things obviously wouldn't have gotten that far had a British cantonment commanding officer named Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) not meant ill and toyed around with the sentiments of, in the words of Champaner's leading political representative (Rajendra Gupta the Mukhiya), a 'silly child' named Bhuvan (Aamir Khan). And this brings us to one of the most powerful scenes in a film packed with one powerful moment after another.

Every time I see the film, this scene is among those I am most awed by. If not for the dialogue, for its delivery.

If not for the near-speechless emotion, for its obvious focus on greed or redemption depending on whose perspective is considered.

If not for the magnificent camerawork, for the awesome, in the true sense of the word, background score to the scene (which includes silence as well). Here's audio from the scene:

For the intense focus employed by the characters on what the challenge is. An opportunity that must be availed, leading to a challenge that must be accepted because it's too good to pass. Topped off with an exchange for the ages between siblings on opposite sides. "This is not fair," says Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), to which her brother replies (and there's no debating the validity of his statement, is there?):

Back to the team, then. It's only fair this post be dedicated to the complete team -- the Lagaan XI -- as they are referred to in cricketing circles. Too often, actors other than the superstars are overlooked. Almost like sports stars and their teams. Thankfully, the film arguably does justice to each. So here they are, in order of the batting lineup in the film. I've tried to list other films in which these actors have worked with Aamir, but can't vouch for completeness of the lists.

1. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan): Team founder and leader, we've talked much about throughout, of course. There's little value I can add with more words to his presence. Let the outcome of the cricket match and film speak for themselves.

2. Deva (Pradeep Rawat): Former sepoy and a fine all-rounder. One of the best strategists for the team, and the most experienced, who fell a run shy of a half-century in the most unfortunate of dismissals. Among Rawat's works alongside Aamir are Sarfarosh (1999) and Ghajini (2008). If you've seen him in either film, especially in the latter, you know how menacing he can be. Neat little subtext here is that Rawat belongs to a family of soldiers (Bhatkal, 99), and replaced Mukesh Rishi for the role of Deva when Rishi backed out of the project.

3. Arjan (Akhilendra Mishra): His lightbulb moment came courtesy a Captain Russell mighty angry at his superiors in the British Raj. "You slaves will stay under our shoes," Arjan was told. "No matter their thickness, soles eventually wear out in sweltering heat," he replied. Too bad impulse got the better of him in the match. Mishra's previous film with Aamir was Sarfarosh (1999).

4. Lakha (Yashpal Sharma): Woodcutter, traiter, and part of a self-made love triangle involving Bhuvan and Gauri. He probably did not atone enough, but who am I to argue when Gauri forgave him? He did not score any runs (bodyline has its ugly side), but his comeback as a legitimate contributor to the team from day 2 onward gave Ashutosh Gowariker and his action director Abbas Ali Mogul one of the more difficult sequences for film. And boy did it elevate Lakha to Jonty Rhodes-like levels! It also earned him this dedication from yours truly (it was hard work!)

5. Bagha (Amin Hajee): Mute, but a great listener and communicator. Among the very first to support Bhuvan in forming a team, his optimism more than made up for his abysmal fielding skills. And when he hit the ball, the ball stayed hit. Works alongside Aamir include Ghulam (1998) and The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005).

6. Ismail (Rajendranath Zutshi): Solid, calm-headed batsman, who played through injury to help give the team a fair opportunity to push for a win on the final day (day 3) of the match. Other works alongside Aamir include: Holi (1984), Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), and Tum Mere Ho (1990).

7. Ishwar (Shri Vallabh Vyas): The medic among the group, and perhaps the first and only team doctor in the history of sport to replace an athlete out in the field! Could be blamed for lack of stamina as the game wore on (IV was probably out of the question back then), but never a lack of commitment. Dedicated a Father's Day post to him here. Major intangible -- he's Gauri's father! Works alongside Aamir include Sarfarosh (1999).

8. Guran (Rajesh Vivek): Fortune-teller and spiritual leader of the group. An unusual batting stance and a constant desire to talk smack while out in the field made his character the perfect catalyst for comic relief. It also drew him a "coming from the jungle" comment during the match.

9. Goli (Daya Shankar Pandey)! Phenk gola! (Throw the ball!) A ridiculous bowling action one cannot begin to describe earned the team some vital wickets, although there's no excuse for a first-ball duck. He was also alongside Aamir in Ghulam (1998).

10. Bhura (Raghuvir Yadav): His chickens helped the team learn how to field, and his split-second decision-making during a mixup between the wickets gave the villagers an opportunity by keeping Bhuvan at the pitch. A fine actor whose previous film with Aamir was 1947 Earth (1998).

11. Kachra (Aditya Lakhia): The crippled and the 'untouchable' who would never have made it to the team without Bhuvan's support. His bowling kept the game within reach on day 2, and it was his over-and-a-half long partnership with Bhuvan at the very end that would help seal the deal. His previous films with Aamir were Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) and 1947 Earth (1998).

12. Tipu (Amin Gazi): He came on as runner for an injured Ismail, and the role of the kid who was the first to join Bhuvan in playing cricket in the village was crucial in facilitating the largest partnership of the match for the team. The cricket rulebooks allow the mode of his (Ismail's) dismissal, but it is as unsportsmanlike as running up the score in (American) football, for example. This was Amin's debut film.

The Coach: No mention of the team is complete without mention of its coach. Elizabeth Russell (Rachel Shelley) was the driving force behind the success of Lagaan XI. If there's one thing I could change about the film, as blasphemous as this might sound, it's treatment of her character after the match. Oh, well.

So there you have it. The unlikeliest of heroes from the unlikeliest of sources. And a team purposefully comprising individuals that collectively represent unity of religions and the potential humanity carries to fight a divide-and-rule philosophy with one that says we have more than binds us than separates us. I also like that Lagaan XI largely comprised individuals from the very same group of people that was present when the challenge was issued. Now, isn't that a coincidence? :)

Also see:
Lagaan Week 2009

And finally...

Cricket fans have always admired the extent of detail involved in setting up for and filming this particular match. Credit Ashutosh Gowariker and Aamir for their work. So we went from bad field placements (from the national squad, no less) and laughable camerawork in Awwal Number (1990) to a team of villagers getting it right.

Here's an excerpt from (page 95 of) The Spirit of LAGAAN by Satyajit Bhatkal (click the image to enlarge), in which we're given an introduction to the challenge of finding nineteenth century cricket gear. See, I *knew* this film was hardly fiction! ;)


Darshit said...

Ahh,,that scene!! In my last viewing, I emphasized on that scene. Especially the 'silent' background score...and when Elizabeth told 'this is not fair' It was natuaral the words came on my lips 'So is life'...Excellent scene, indeed !!

The Lagaan XI, was 'meant' to be. It was their destiny to get together on one field. And together they are just too fantastic. Everyone, just everyone.

Ah, that dive!! And the story behind that !! Just read it and read about 1200 Legacy [u know wht's that]. What trauma all have gone through !! Making my love triple for this movie. The Dedication is new meaning of the word Lagaan !!

shell said...

This was the first time I'd really been exposed to cricket as a sport. I found in intriguing enough to watch an IPL match is the future (and I'm not a 'sporty' person), moreover, it made me start to crave more Aamir. This movie is a sublime example of how a large ensemble of actors, each with their own characteristics and personality, can come together and create a perfect unit. Great post BollywoodFan!!!

maxqnz said...

A ridiculous bowling action one cannot begin to describe earned the team some vital wickets

I thought his action reminscent of a sort of "Murali on crack", or perhaps one of the other subcontinental bowlers with "borderline" actions that have cropped up in the last few years. Interestingly, many of these 'suspect' actions have surfaced post-Lagaan - coincidence? ;)

I really hope that the lngo game can survive - imagine the total absence of dramatic tension if Lagaan's story was built around a 20/20 game! Let's hope that the cricket version of baseball can help fund the "real" game, the nearest thing there ever has been to chess on a sportsfield.

Nida said...

Happy Lagaan Anniversary! Reading your loving posts on this film always makes me want to watch it again :)

I think one of the best things about this movie, as you've so thoughtfully illustrated, was the detailed characterizations. Each player had their own personality. I can't think of any other film that etched out so many different characters so well.

theBollywoodFan said...

Darshit: You're absolutely correct about dedication being the mantra of the cast and crew. It's easy for one to assume, upon reading Bhatkal's book, that he's sensationalizing things. But the video footage in Chale Chalo doesn't lie. It's quite awe-inspiring. How often does an entire film crew wake up around sunrise for months at a stretch? They should have had one of those Coca-Cola commercials (with Aamir, of course :) Lagaan, sleep Lagaan, drink only...LOL.

Shell: Thank you, glad you enjoyed the post! So how was your experience watching an IPL match? The first few are critical, I would think. I can't imagine watching too many one-sided games for too long, if uninitiated. Lagaan's certainly one of Aamir's best (I think his best, but many disagree), and I think it's testament to his acting skills that Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai (have you seen it?) released a few weeks apart. Such opposites...

theBollywoodFan said...

maxqnz: First of all, 'Murali on crack' is just absolutely *hilarious*!!!! And that's a great, great point about the actions of the subcontinental bowlers! It certainly might not be a coincidence at all, so true. I remember the World Cup of 2003, in which India made it to the final...they had a lot of footage/music from Lagaan playing on sports channels!

I'm completely with you on the longer version of the game. The T-20 games are more sports entertainment to me. We're talking of luck in the post, luck is just such an overwhelming factor in these short games, chances of the best team winning are reduced by quite a lot, I think. I wonder if they've considered having series of games, as they do in basketball, [ice] hockey, and baseball. The 'real' game will be alive and well, I hope. I even enjoy test matches, believe it or not. Then again, among my all-time favorite batsmen is Rahul Dravid, so go figure :)

Nida: Thank you, ji! The characterizations were all so well laid out, na? That the actors worked well opposite each other was probably because of their roots in theater, and that many had worked with Aamir before. That's got to count for something.

We must watch Lagaan together some time, if only so I can make a complete fool of myself :D

shell said...

I wasn't able to find one to watch this season. They show commercials all the time of B4U, but not the matches. I'll have to subscribe to more Indian channels I suppose -darn it. ;)

I saw DCH probably a year ago or so. I thought it was terrific. I especially liked Aamir and the scene towards the end where he gives Rohit that look that could kill at the engagement party. Great great stuff!

Sujoy said...

You know what, Lagaan seems to be one of the very few movies which I keep loving and then some more, every time I see a scene, listen a slive of a track or even see just a single frame. That is indeed the power of cinema.

Many many thanks for such a wonderful post on the Lagaan XI. I do agree that the treatment of the coach hasn't been quite well. She had to leave, and then she decides on living an unmarried life. Pyar main Sau Uljhane Hai...sorry, got sidetracked!! Damn you Vivek!

The other post: "You had me at Ghanan Ghanan" had me at hello. I am making a list of Bollywood movies to show to my new flatmates. Of course, I have to first nurture them with the Bolly sensibilities before I install this magnum opus on their cranium. Any suggestions?

o,btw, I got a 71 for my case study! And my tutor gave me a 10 on 10 for the work breakdown structure and the causal loop risk analysis. Hahaha.

Anonymous said...

You've outdone yourself! Nice perspective highlighting each team member. I should try and see Lagaan sometime. ;) Kidding! I've seen it mitr!
All the best,

theBollywoodFan said...

Shell: If you're really up for cricket, you can catch some old classics on YouTube. DCH was a lot of fun, and I liked that it was the first in Farhan Akhtar's filmography. It was also Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's first soundtrack, I believ. There have been several attempts since to capture the depths of friendship, but I don't think they've come close. Everyone in the film (Aamir and Akshaye, especially) was just great! Glad you enjoyed it!

Sujoy: ROTFL at that Kyun Ho Gaya Na tangent! =) It's true. I almost want to say it's as emotional as watching Aamir and Juhi in QSQT, except that they both continue to live (one, happily) in this.

Good luck with introducing Lagaan to your flatmates! Have they seen Slumdog Millionaire? I'm going through a similar Bollywood initiation effort with a colleague at work, and he thought Slumdog was a lot of noise (as did I), so I'm hoping Lagaan works! And good going with that work breakdown structure :)

Adab Sita-ji: You had me wondering, but only for a moment, LOL. You've probably heard enough about this movie from our many great conversations (and we're due for one, now), so thank you for continuing to read :)

Anu said...

Sorry for being late with my comment!

The way you've been going, I think you'd end up being awarded a Ph.D on Lagaan! :D

I also felt bad for Elizabeth. She was the one who helped them prepare for the challenge, she loved Bhuvan so much! The scene where she says "I think I'm falling in love with you!" to Bhuvan and he doesn't understand a word and she runs away uttering those lines, almost breaking into a sob... that scene evokes a lot of emotion. Your heart goes out to Elizabeth! Her character was more like Meerabai while Radha (Gauri in this case) got Kanhaiya (Bhuvan).

The film covers so many elements and themes, hai na?

I really wanted Rachel Shelley to win an award for her performance in this film. In fact, I remember voting for her in the voting forms for Filmfare and Lux Zee Cine Awards in 2001-02!

You've rightly said, the team comprised of "The unlikeliest of heroes from the unlikeliest of sources"! As for detail, how can Aamir settle for anything less than perfectly authentic for his film? That too, for his first home production? Aamir takes a lot of pains for his craft, truly living up to the title of "Mr. Perfectionist"! Thanks for the page from Bhatkal's book. I have to get hold of this book soon!

I must say, very insightful and detailed post. Thanks a lot for keeping this classic alive and afresh through your blog! :)

theBollywoodFan said...

With you on Elizabeth. That's why I think that comment at the time the challenge is issued, when her brother tells her, "so is life," is so ironic.

Rachel Shelley was outstanding. You're right about the awards, but they seldom pick the best film or best performance anyway, so I don't take them seriously, to be honest.

When you read Bhatkal's book, you'll appreciate how spot on you are in mentioning the importance of Aamir Khan's home production. As his maiden production, he clearly went all out and risked a lot with the film. The success the film earned was much deserved, I think.

Thank *you*, Anu. Never too late. And a Ph.D on Lagaan doesn't sound like a bad idea at all :)

Anu said...

Yes, the "so is life" scene applies here. Awards are completely useless. I'm sure they wouldn't have given any major awards to Lagaan, if it had not got so much international acclaim and had not been nominated for the Academy Awards.

Of course, we all know how dedicated and passionate Aamir is, towards his craft. Truly Lagaan deserved the kind of success it got. [And considering the kind of films that are receiving success these days, I believe Lagaan deserved even more...]

Thanks again!