Lagaan Week Guest Post: A Remarkable Journey with a Remarkable Film

I am glad to present this guest post by Aamir and Lagaan fan Kristine, who lives in Northern Germany. Kristine -- on Twitter at -- works as art director in the marketing department of a major corporation. In her spare time, she likes to read, listen to music, sing, dance, watch movies, and work as a choreographer. Please join me in thanking her for sharing her journey with the film, and several factoids from the journey of its making. Thank you, Kristine!

First of all I have to say that I feel really honored that I have been asked to write something about Lagaan. So, thank you, theBollywoodFan, for having faith in me.I have seen Lagaan several times. Lagaan was my first "Bollywood" movie. I did not know anything about Bollywood at that time, and more or less stumbled over the movie on TV. I love music, dancing, and travelling to foreign countries. So, seeing a movie with singing, dancing, and foreign landscapes and cultures did not scare me away, as others claim they do. On the contrary, more than half way through I was so blown away that I sat completely engaged and tensed while watching something as weird!

Again, I have seen Lagaan several times, and am in love with this movie. I wanted to know more. So I bought "The Spirit of Lagaan" by Satyajit Bhatkal (who in real life is a good friend of Aamir and was a lawyer who had nothing to do with movies) and read it in one night! I was amazed to find out bit by bit how everything and everyone came together. But I wanted more. So I bought "Balham to Bollywood" by Chris England and was rewarded with some strange looks by my fellow travellers in the tram on my way to work because I laughed so much.

Then the Anniversary Box Set came out, and finally I got a chance to get a hold on "Chale Chalo – The Lunacy of film-making," again by Satyajit Bhatkal. At that time it seemed to me that I had spent decades searching the Net for that very special "Making of". So there it was -- a 3-DVD box with lots of goodies. (And no. I was not one of the lucky girls who found an invitation for a dinner with Aamir in it *sniff *) But "Chale Chalo" came without subtitles! My Hindi (learned through Bollywood movies and "Teach yourself" sets) had developed quite well, but I was a bit dissapointed. Then there was a rumour that there were 4-DVD boxes as well, with the Hindi and English versions of "Chale Chalo". So the hunt was on again. I bought another box and hoped that it would be a 4-DVD box set – big mistake – just another 3-DVD box set! In true Aamirian spirit, however, I did not give up and finally got my 4-DVD set. Jiiiiiihaaaaaaa! And the best thing was that the English and Hindi versions were not the same, so I had a ball watching both of them in tandem and finding the differences. ;-)

I write all of the above to make clear that my take on Lagaan was not written after a first encounter with the movie. It is the result of everything I have seen and read about the film. I hope you enjoy it and have fun.

So here we go....

...19th century somewhere in India. Living is hard when you do not only have to feed your own people and your own sovereigns but also some white blokes who think that they are the kings of the world. No rain – no harvest. It is as simple as this. Life gets worse when the villagers are forced to pay double the tax they paid last year. One remark (and a bit more) leads to a bet which leads know what happens next.

Aamir Khan (producer, main actor, he who has faith in Director Ashutosh Gowariker) compared Lagaan to an Asterix comic on several occasions, saying Champaner is like a small village in Gaul fighting the mighty Roman Empire. But reducing Lagaan just to the "Villagers against the British Raj"- is not fair to the author of Lagaan, Ashutosh Gowariker. There is much more Lagaan has to offer. So the "fight" in Lagaan is the fight for equality of all people, for justice and for life. The Team of Champaner contains Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, an Untouchable, and is supported by a British Lady and of course the lovely Gauri. Let's get this right. We are talking about the 1890s here. Teaming up and standing together as one regardless of religion, class, and caste is a model *today*! Compare Lagaan XI to the India of today (or think global) and you will be very sad about all the missed opportunities.

Lagaan is pure multiculti, a little like an Indian mixture of "Utopia" and "The seven Samurai", without losing its very own identity. The success of the team – ergo the village – shows the audience that despite all the differences of the people (gender, background, religion, etc.) a strong community is of prime importance to survive and have success. Do you listen, modern-day India?

As Ashutosh Gowariker said, at the time of the birth of Lagaan, there were several don'ts:
  1. Don’t do a movie about ancient rural India,
  2. Don’t dress your actors in Dhotis and let them talk in a dialect,
  3. Don’t make a movie about sport and especially NOT about cricket.
No wonder the idea of the movie (even before the script existed) was smashed by Aamir, who heard it at 4 a.m. in his parking lot. But thank God Ashutosh did not listen to Aamir and wrote the complete dialogue version over the next couple of months. And he got Aamir to listen to it. Aamir liked it but was scared to be part of the movie. Why? See the three don'ts above.

So Ashutosh took his script and started a tour to almost every actor and every production house in India, trying to sell the script. Without success, but with some really strange recommendations, e.g. Bhuvan should stab Captain Russel at the end with a stump. Eventually, after a second narration, Aamir agreed to act in the movie. But he did not want Ashutosh to tell anybody because he did not want a producer who only said yes because the star of the movie is Aamir Khan. He wanted a producer who believed in the script, the concept, the movie. This belief Aamir and Ashutosh demanded from all those who would be involved with the production of Lagaan. So Ashutosh made his tour again but did not find a producer. After another narration, which included Aamir's father, uncle, Reena (now his ex-wife), and a financier named Jamu Sughand, Aamir agreed to produce the movie – but only on the creative side. Aamir roped in Reena as well who did the whole financial and contracts part. But excuse the tangent here.

The story is very compact and there are no distracting sideplots. Something that one seldom expects of a movie that's almost four hours long. More importantly, I am still wondering how Ashutosh got me excited about something exotic!

The very good balanced combination of earnestness and pathos, humor and irony, cheesy emotion and sentimentality, grand moments and small occasions captured me without boring me for a moment. I've seen the movie around 20 times, and this still holds true. That's a remarkable trait.

(theBollywoodFan's comment: Agree completely! Look, Gowariker is notorious for long movies by now, but I don't think anyone cared much for the length of Lagaan -- if it's done well, it's welcome!)

The danger of a movie with an ensemble cast is that the author loses track and that the editing nearly kills the movie. This did not happen here. Every team member (and a lot of other characters) has his own history, identity and his own erscheinungbild (German for semblance) and is introduced – more or less detailed – to the audience. This happens without the movie getting boring. The lovely description of the characters, the way the story unfolds, slowly but surely, takes the audience to the Höhepunkt (climax) – from the first moment, when the coin rotates, to the teambuilding and the very last bat, everything makes sense and fits like a tailored shoe. It's just the introduction of Kachra, the untouchable, which was a bit intolerable. I didn't think it was necessary to support every third word said by Bhuvan with heavy drumbeats. The words alone were meaningful enough.

I thought Lagaan was extremely well cast. There wasn't anyone who was not able to deliver the part, or who acted implausible. Aamir Khan as rural, sensitive farmer with a strong sense of justice and a very big bullhead, the lovely Gracy Singh as the faithful village belle who is in love with Bhuvan, Amin Gazi as the witty kid who plays an important part in the team, Rajesh Vivek als the manic weirdo, Amin Hajee as the mute drummer with the powerful arms and the brightest smile, Raghuveer Yadav as the funny chicken farmer Bhura who has a constant quarral with neighbour Goli and his kids – this list can go on and on, can it not?

Individually looked at, each role might not be very big. They don’t have to be, because the complexity emerges from the community of actors. What I'm trying to say is we can find a lot in each and every one of these characters. We just have to look again, and again, and again. We can see how Gauri coyly casts down her eyes while talking to Bhuvan on the hill about her future marriage and how she raises her eyes in secret admiration for Bhuvan's strength when she comes to his home at night. We can see how Captain Russell flares his nostrils when he thinks he's outclassed someone. And we can see the curled up big eylashes of Bhuvan. Yes, really. They came up with the idea to provide Bhuvan with bigger eyes and make him so look even more trustful. I could comment on each and every character of Lagaan like this but this post is already too long.

Instead, let me go to the set and the set decoration.

For months and months, Ashutosh Gowariker and production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai roamed the Indian Subcontinent to find the perfect location for Champaner. Very early they decided not to build papier mâché fassades in Filmcity in Mumbai but to build a real village with real houses. When they decided for a piece of land near Bhuj in Gujarat, they paid the local farmers for the use of their land and for the loss of the harvest that year.

The village of Champaner was designed so lovely and authentic that you just love to see the villagers act in it. Deeper looks into the daily life would have been appreciated but I guess that would have made the movie more than 5 hours long (not that I would have filed a complaint!).

The village was built by regular people who lived in that area and not by set builders from Mumbai. They used techniques which were really used to build houses in that area, and they used natural materials. One anecdote from "Chale Chalo" says that the whole ground of the village had to be covered with a special mixture of soil and cow-dung because the regular ground reflected so much light that the camerawork (Anil Mehta) faced serious challenges.

Not only was the village authentic (there were even heated discussions about who would live in which house, who would neighbour whom, and how big those houses should be), even the equipment like Ismayel’s pottery wheel and Arjan’s smithy belonged to people who built the village. The patterns for the antique cricket bats Aamir found in a small shop in London. Every character in the movie has his own, individually designed house. But there are not only 11 houses. They built more than 30 houses, the beautiful temple on the hilltop and of course fields and fences for the cattle.

Creating Champaner

You can clearly see that the village is not empty but full of life. It is not crowded only when the camera is filming one specific house. In almost all scenes filmed in Champaner, there are wide angle shots and in truly every corner, there is activity. All those wide angle shots are a feast for the eyes. All the colours harmonize with "rural India" and are in earthy shades. Even flashy colours, which are almost only used in the dresses of the women, mainly contain shades of yellow, orange, red and brown (rarely green). Very impressive are the mass-scenes for which they convinced 10,000 people from all over Kutch (most of them had never seen a movie before) to come to the sets before sunrise. All those people had to be dressed and fed – in the middle of nowhere. One can imagine the effort that went into this.

Never before had dryness looked so beautiful. Anil Mehta caught amazingly beautiful pictures with his camera. The panning shots over the village (especially during the rain song) are simply brilliant and undermine again the importance of building a real village instead of façades. The change from wide angle shots of the entire village, the landscape and the mass-scenes to the close-ups of the expressive faces of the actors are great. And even the unability of some actors to play cricket was covered up very well. Or did you notice that Akhilendra Mishra as blacksmith Arjan was not able to hit the ball even properly even once? Or did you know that not only Paul Blacksmith as Captain Russell had problems with the language? There are very funny scenes in "Chale Chalo" in which even Aamir was not able to deliver his lines in the first take, nor in the second or third or tenth! "Perfectionist" Aamir said that he had so much to do as a producer that he learned his lines the night before the shooting.

I'd like to finish with a discussion on the songs. All the songs of Lagaan are a feast for the eyes just as well – for one or the other reason.

In "Ghanan Ghanan" it is the amazing background action (even if it is a little condescending to call it that). Many villagers were still played by those people who created Champaner. They were not actors but farmers and craftsmen. Some were local actors from the amateur theatre in Bhuj. Even from amongst the pros from Mumbai there were people who had never danced or lip-synched a song. Still, the choreographer had planned a lot of wideangle shots with activities in all corners of the village. And if you look really close, you will find a villager or two who stumbles over his own feet, waves the arms out of synch, or simply looks really frustrated. Nonetheless, especially those scenes are immensly charming and give the audience the feeling that it's not professional, paid dancers who act on a stage in a studio, but that they're a bunch of normal villagers who simply celebrate the (pending) arrival of the rain.

"Mitwa" always brings tears and a smile to my face. Tears because of Goli who is so afraid and who passes his food to his children so they have enough to eat, and a smile not only because of the lovely interaction of Bhuvan with the kids, but because of the party atmosphere at the end of the song when the old and the new members of Lagaan XI celebrate themselves and life in general.

The beautiful choreography (Saroj Khan) of "Radha Kaise Na Jale“ is a visual treat. And of course, there is also an anecdote to this song as well. Everybody was really proud of Gracy Singh. Because of the really heavy silver earrings she had to wear during the entire movie, her earlobes were inflamed and at that time she had to undergo a fair amount of pain with every move she made. She did it all beautifully, though, as you well know.

What I love about "O Rey Chori" is that it is simply so very beautiful! Just Bhuvan and Gauri in love in the wonderful landscape of Kutch, on a hill surrounded by wasteland, on a haystack, on an ox-cart – no dancing around trees or freezing actresses in a sari on a Swiss glacier.

"Chale Chalo" has a well trained, half-naked, sweaty Aamir... ahem.... so do I have to say more? Nooo. *Whistles*

(theBollywoodFan's comments: Wow, did I just let someone say *that* on this blog? :D)

My favourite song is "O Paalanhaare". The despair of the villagers expresses itself in an intercessional prayer at the humble but beautiful temple. It's very impressive to see how demoralised the villagers were and how much power they take from this prayer. And now a note on the temple. Built in a traditional way which means they did not use concrete or any other adhesive between the stones. So in the scene where Lakha is chased, hides in the temple and the villagers are banging against the door, there was a genuine concern that the walls would not hold and that the temple would collapse. Neither happened.

So there you go. In summary, Lagaan is one of the very best movies, across global cinema, that I have ever seen. Happy Birthday Lagaan! And happy anniversary and thank you to everybody who was involved in making this very special movie.


dunkdaft said...

Oh man. Wht a post ! Thank u thnk u for such great write up. Was taken aback to the place once again. Loved this.

theBollywoodFan said...

Thanks Darshit! Glad you enjoyed this post, there's a lot of good information na. I know you've read the book and seen the making, it's pretty amazing as Kristine outlines in the post. Thank you for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

@ Darshit
Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it.

Thanks for putting my post on your Blog and having faith in me... :-)


Aline HindiCinemaBlog said...

Kristine, so glad to see you post here! It is great to read how you came upon the film, I could really relate to the 3-disc and then 4-disc hunt. :-)
You express some excellent points here and I am also really glad to read someone else post about the songs and their choreography. Always something to be learnt.
Kudos to you and TheBollywoodFan for giving us more literature on such a wonderful classic.


PS: The "Leave your comment" for this blog says: "Please keep your comments family-friendly". I was unsure if one would be able to do that after Kristine's description of "Chale Chalo" ;-) but somehow I managed. Phew! :-D

theBollywoodFan said...

Kristine: Mention not, thank you!

Aline! Welcome! Long time my friend. Thank you for your visit and comment, and glad you're enjoying the Lagaan Week posts. :) ROTFLOL at the 'family-friendly' comment policy. Post makes it tough, eh? :D Haha, comment made my day, thanks! And cheers!

Veera App (via Twitter) said...

Wow - well written - I am impressed!

Kristine said...

@ Aline
Thank's for the kind words.

@ Veera
Thank's for stopping by!

Suja said...

Thank you for a lovely post. I found all the background information fascinating, what a production!
Cheers. Suja

theBollywoodFan said...

Thank you for your visit and comment, Suja!