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? :)
Lagaan Week 2009
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! ;)