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Lagaan: The Fairy Tale of a Barren Land!

June 15, 2020 | By

Lagaan is arguably the best fairly tale made on celluloid without recoursing to mythology, or to the absurd or bizarre as happens in a majority of Hindi films…one will not mind believing that this film is a page of history.

lagaan poster

Lagaan, released internationally in the year 2001 was titled, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. The title Lagaan is fine, for the whole film is tethered to it.  But how does Once Upon a Time in India connect to Lagaan?  It is too open-ended, too vague; not at all specific.

Perhaps, those involved in the making of this film were not aware of the monumental work of the celebrated Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath Renu, which goes by the title परती परी कथा.  In English it approximates to The Fairy Tale of a Barren Land.  Perhaps the international release of the film merited the following title, Lagaan: The Fairy Tale of a Barren Land. On the conclusion of the film, the audience would have understood with a vocal admiration as to how the stark, dismaying ground realities mutate beautifully into no less than a fairy tale — a cricket match that, for its momentum, draws more upon the human emotions than the playing skills! Lagaan is arguably the best fairly tale made on celluloid without recoursing to mythology, or to the absurd or bizarre as happens in a majority of Hindi films – for instance Pran walking on a rope hanging between and connecting two high rising buildings with only one-and-a-half legs with two kids clinging on to him (film Don)! Lagaan has none of these. Instead one will not mind believing that this film is a page of history.


A telescopic view of the story will reveal that it is about a village, Champaner by name, which existed in the nineteenth century, and its people. India then was a British colony. In the year 1893, a delayed monsoon thwarted growing of any crop. Consequently the farmers were in no position to pay the annual lagaan. They pleaded for its remission with the titular king of the area as also the superior British authority. In the midst of all this, a young farmer Bhuvan got embroiled in a scuffle with one of the officers.  Bhuvan also mocked at the game – cricket – that was being played there at that time.

The heated exchange that ensued eventually led to an offer by Captain Russel of a cricket match between the British officers and the villagers on the condition that if the Brits  lost, the lagaan for three years for the entire province would be exempted, and if they won, the farmers would pay three times of the lagaan due. The ordinary farmers staking their future against the ruthless British rulers. David versus Goliath virtually!

Yet the help came, unexpectedly, from Elizabeth Russell, the sister of Captain Russell. She thought that the villagers were handed out an unfair deal.  She mentored a motley group of eleven greenhorns, to help it learn the ropes, to turn into a team of sorts. And whilst she mentored the group, she fell for Bhuvan. The villagers eventually won the match and as a punishment for his indiscretion, Captain Smith was made to pay the lagaan and transferred to Central Africa. Elizabeth Russell, her love unrequited, her heart broken, returned to England to live ever unwed, to remain a Radha to her Krishna!


Elizabeth Russell and Bhuvan (Rachel Shelley and Aamir Khan)

Lagaan’s Cinematic Adaptation

The story of Lagaan is credited to Ashutosh Gowarikar.  He wrote the screenplay and also directed the film. He also took upon himself to write the English dialogues of the film.  The dialogues in Hindi/vernacular were penned by KP Saxena. This was a master-stroke.  It is his language through which the film communicates. It reminds us of the language of Ganga Jumna, and is, perhaps, even nearer to that occasionally spoken in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi.  Saxena is not loud, nor melodramatic – mercifully Gowarikar resisted the temptation of engaging Javed Akhtar who was otherwise very much in the film as its lyricist.  Saxena is subtle, humorous and, if the situation demands, profound. Often, the dialogues turn a good film into a great one. Saxena reminds me of Dr Rahi Masoom Raza whose dialogues fuelled the direction of BR Chopra that took his Mahabharat to a height that will ever remain unscaled, perhaps.

BR Chopra — It is said that his Naya Daur inspired Lagaan. Yes, if one looks at the characterization of the heroes of the two films – Shankar and Bhuwan. Both are young and dynamic, up adversarially against the establishment and have immense self belief. Both are fired up by a common cause – Shankar for the tangewalas in fear of losing their livelihood and Bhuvan for the oppressed farmers. And in either, the tormenter is an individual in the establishment – a heartless over-ambitious Kundan in Naya Daur and a whimsical, haughty Captain Andrew Russell in Lagaan. Both the heroes take upon themselves the tasks apparently impossible. There are some other similarities too.

But I wonder why Dasarath Manjhi was not Gowrikar’s inspiration? Manjhi took 22 years – from 1960 -1982 – to carve a road through the ridge of rocks.  His pregnant wife had fallen from the same ridge and died.  Was it not the fiction of Shankar resolving to build a tonga road all by himself coming true in the person of Manjhi and his deeds in a much greater dimension?  Where will Bhuvan’s resolve stand in the midst of all these?  Is it not that a great film inspired a still greater film even though the story of Naya Daur has a greater credibility, has an explicit philosophy to sustain it?

Aamir Khan was the producer of this film – his first production. It is possible that the story of Lagaan found his endorsement for a reason not relatable to Naya Daur.  He might have foreseen Lagaan giving a mega expression to his fancy wherein the underdog triumphs in the final scene of the film.  The cycle race of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, the boxing bout of Ghulam, the painting competition of Taare Zameen Par, the wresting bout of Dangal – the winner in each is the one written off or beaten in life. And each of these scenes is highly emotive; the audience in complete empathy with the underdog, with a lump in the throat!  Lagaan surpasses these both in impact and in stirring emotions. It surpasses perhaps because it does not conclude with an individual versus individual climax. It is a team versus a team, with eleven underdogs on one side, with each contributing a sub-stream of emotion. The scenes comprising the Cricket match take about half of the film time.

lagaan stills

The scenes comprising the Cricket match take about half of the film time. (Paul Blackthorne and Aamir Khan)

The Underdogsbut before reaching the Big Match, the film digs deeper to assemble a playing eleven.  And it is here that the film gets its current contextuality. It explores a social milieu that seems no different from the one that obtains in rural India even now. The social functions and hierarchy are so vividly drawn out. The team eventually assembled, by much coaxing and cajoling, comprises, besides Bhuvan who is wood-carver, a poultry farmer, a blacksmith, a vaidya, a wood cutter, a mute drummer, a farmer with large land holding, a fortune teller  a Sikh, a Muslim potter and last but not the least KACHRA – an UNTOUCHABLE. Kachra with his right arm polio stricken is at the bottom of the social hierarchy. No one will like to interact with him, much less play. THE ULTIMATE UNDERDOG.  Bhuvan bats for him as he foresees his polio stricken arm doing the spinning tricks. The whole village is vociferously against his inclusion. But Bhuvan with an inspired speech, which predictably quotes Ram-Shabri also, gets the vote for him.  I am however amazed at the ingenuity of giving him the name Kachra – the GARBAGE! It is the Garbage that eventually comes to the team’s rescue. The Producer/Director thus created a strong emotional sub-story.  The audience waits eagerly as to how Kachra will unfold in the crunch situation. This is a very strong point of the film.

The Sikh in the team, Deva Singh Sodhi, a sepoy in British army once upon a time, an avowed English hater and with a typical khalsa spirit, is an outsider. This could even be taken as an interpolation in the story. Yet very well thought out, as it aligns a local issue – remission of lagaan – to a larger national cause of freedom from the British. Also, with the team relying on a larger field for talent, the level of contest too goes up, at least in perception.  It keys up the audience’s interest.

With upper caste Hindus, OBCs, an SC, a Muslim and a Sikh in the team, one cannot help observing that Gowarikar-Khan duo seems to have given retrospective effect to the Constitutional provision as to reservations.  Yet we have to give it to them – Gowarikar and Khan – that the team as composed looks so much reflective of our own milieu that the film’s projection as one specific to a period fades into the background, remains no more than nominal.

And the presence of a saboteur – Laakha – in the team further strengthens the contemporary credentials of the story. Spot-fixing for lucre is a perennial temptation. Laakha’s reason though is different, is emotional.  Laakha is Bhuvan’s raqib. Gauri is his love object but she dotes on Bhuvan. Thus rejected, he becomes bitter and vengeful. He acts a mole, voluntarily, for Captain Smith who advises him to wreck the team from within.  Determined to cause Bhuvan’s fall, unmindful of its larger consequences, he manages his place in the team. This twist in the tale – one man acting against the team’s interest – give the Big Match a character of the matches of our time. Laakha is intercepted just in time but let off.  But why?

lagaan review

Bhuvan and his team

The Film’s Humane Face

Another strong point of the film is that it has a humane face, has an inclusive character. It also portrays, though subtly, that Brits are fair and just, Captain Smith’s brutality, unreasonableness and whimsicality notwithstanding. Thus the villagers do not rise in revolt, do not turn violent on being denied lagaan remission. They do not outrageously condemn all the Brits for the misdemeanor of Captain Smith. That Smith is exceptional is borne out by the fact that his seniors take him to task for his arbitrariness and eventually punish him too. The humane side of the Brits is epitomized by Smith’s sister Elizabeth who covertly helps the villager in building a team. And the two umpires presiding over the Match strongly convey that fairness and neutrality is normal to Brits. No wonder therefore that the film was well received and acclaimed in other countries. And the Indian audiences do not come out hating the Brits.

Each-according-to-his-religion prayer, just before the match, is essentially an inclusive sentiment even if it looks a little contrived.

Laakha’s let off is consistent with this inclusive sentiment that runs through the film. Give him a chance to atone for his sin!

The Characters

The film has twenty three known artistes including six non-Indians namely Aamir Khan, Rachel Shelly, Gracy Singh, Paul Blackthrone, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Suhasini Mulay, Raghvir Yadav, Rajendra Gupta, Rajesh Vivek, Raj Zutshi, Pradeep Rawat, Akhilendra Mishra, Daya Shankar Pandey, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Yashpal Sharma, Ameen Hajee, Aditya Lakhia, Javed Khan, AK Hangal, John Rowe, David Grant, Thor Halland and Jeremy Child. This was an impressive assortment of talent and it delivered. Difficult to single out some one for a weak performance.

However, Aamir Khan, Rachel Shelly, Gracy Singh and Paul Blackthrone played the main characters in the film – of Bhuvan, Elizabeth Smith, Gauri and Captain Smith.

Aamir is a competent actor. Yet he does not have the extra spark, extra intensity of Dilip, Raj, Sanjeev or Amitabh.  In this film, he at times is poker-faced even if the requirement is of an emotionally surcharged facial expression. For instance, he could have looked a little more intense as Elizabeth bids adieu. Also, Aamir looks a tad labored as he addresses the villagers to accept the challenge of Captain Smith, or when he is defending Kachra’s inclusion in the team. Comparisons are odious but I cannot help referring to Sunny Deol’s words of inspiration as he addresses his Company (Border) – he looks such a natural leader of men, and Dilip in Naya Daur is much ahead in intensity.

Paul Blackthrone easily measures up-to the haughty, heartless character of Captain Smith.

gracy singh aamir khan lagaan

Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan

For a debutant, Gracy Singh has done exceedingly well. Little dark and dusky, her complexion seems merging so well with the landscape of the place. Yet she is not arid like the landscape; she is fluid. A fine dancer, she hangs on well with Bhuvan. But, to my mind, she is not the lady in the lead, is a supporting actress though her presence is indispensable in the love tragedy that stands subsumed in the Game.

For me, the X factor of the film is Rachel Shelly. She is beautiful though differently.  Her  innocent  eyes as of a doe (reminds one of Nutan);  her broad uncontrived smile. Her speech ever so soft, as if caressing; her facial expressions  benign yet mirroring the emotions for the moment.  Her fulsome attire – especially the white corset – her fedora hat and a stylish parasol over that create, for her, an irresistible cine presence, a sublime aura. Her persona goes so well with the role assigned to her – of a conscientious woman and of a self-effacing lover.

Elizabeth – the role she acts – is a self appointed coach and mentor of the team of the natives. She knows that the locals have been given a rough deal, and that offends her sense of justice and fair play. She tries to raise them to some level of competitiveness, much against the unjustified interest of his ill-tempered brother. She even acts a spy for the Bhuvan’s team and exposes the double-faced Laakha.  And with all this she falls in love for Bhuvan oblivious to or perhaps unmindful of his constant companion Gauri. And consequent heart break at the end.

I have no idea as to what was the critical take on Rachel’s performance in the film, but for me she steals the limelight in every scene she appears.

Rahman and Javed

The film has six tracks, taking about 41 minutes of the reel time.  It is widely held that Lagaan is Rahman’s best album. But the best? I am not sure. The songs of Dil Se have always engaged me. Yet Lagaan’s songs sound, relatively, a tad desi with a liberal infusion of folk music.  He however retains the orchestral grandeur.  I like in particular the two love songs : Radha kaise na jale… and O ri chhori, maan bhi le baat mori, maine pyar tujhi se hai kiya… The two love  songs also  get their strength and impact  from the situations in the film.  O ri chhori… has lines in English filmed on Elizabeth and sung by Vasundhara. The song thus becomes a heady cocktail. It is believed that the English lines were penned by Rahman.

Javed Akhtar is a competent lyricist.  He is not deep like some of the earlier masters. Yet he understands the song situations and supplies effective words.

O palanhare, nirgun aur nyare is a song of surrender to Him, of a people distraught and despairing, for their match is all but lost.  Ordinary people, ordinary words.  But the opening line is almost at odd with the rest of the text. Nirgun is one without sensory or tangible attributes and yet HE is unique and a nurturer – paalanhareaur nyaare. Ironically, the song is in a temple, before the One who is saguna. But the bhajan is touching – the feelings coming out nicely – despite this profound oddity. The last part, sung by Bhuvan, slips in a pearl – bhakti ko shakti do… bestow surrender, bestow strength.

Ghanan ghanan ghir ghir aaye badra … the villagers looking at the sky, at the emerging and ascending clouds in the horizon, praying expectantly for rains.  Javed slips in a rather ‘aggressive’ but enjoyable line ….   Bijuri ki talwar nahi, bundon ke baan chalao.

O mitwa sun mitwa tujhko kya darr hai re, ye dharti apni hai, apna ambar hai re, tu aaja re. This track has tremendous energy. It possesses. Udit Narayan, Sukhvinder, Alka Yagnik combination here is extremely effective.  Its on screen execution is as good. The song intends to arouse the villagers out of their dither, their inhibition, to join hands, to pick he gauntlet.  Miwa, mitwa is sweet, conveys an instant intimacy…. And tu aaja re is an irresistible call of the leader… Come follow me!   Great song, great impact, no doubt.  Javed weaves in another sentiment subtly – the sentiment of love, as Gauri joins with the words:

Sun lo re mitwa jo hai tumhare mann me, wo hi humre mann mein
Jo sapna hai tumhra, sapna wo hi humra hai jeevan mein…
Haan! chale hum liye, aasa ke diye, naynan mein
Diye humri aasao ke kabhi bujh naa payein
Kabhi aandhiyan jo aake in ko bujhaayein

It adds to the impact especially on screen as the two sentiments converge beautifully.

Koi humse jeet na pave, chale chalo chale chalo …. More than bravado, it speaks of intent to succeed, a kind of bracing for the big occasion ahead.  The chorus still sounds soft, unlike the chest thumping in and jingoism of Taaqat watan ki humse hai (Prem Pujari)

The Match: ‘story mein emotion hai, drama hai, tragedy hai– this famous dialogue of Dharmendra in Sholay can as well be spoken for the big cricket match with so much at stake for the either side. The Match has all these and more.  It incidentally deconstructs the game of cricket. It engages the laypersons and the experts of the game alike. The film in general and its game part in particular are perennial favourite of my son.

The deconstruction however is not dry, is not academic. It is inalienably intertwined with the episodes in the arena, the episodes often dramatic. It covers almost every situation that the game may throw up. It however could not have anticipated the last ball drama of the World Cup 2019 Final.  The boy Tipu being Mankaded and is inconsolable; the double-faced Laakha hit and crashing on the wickets – karmic retribution perhaps; the uproarious  euphoria of Bagha on holding a catch for the first time;  a hat trick with freaky leg spin including Warnesque ball of the century; weird bowling action and awkward batting stance;  sledging to induce a false shot; British player’s overbearance and misdemeanor as he hits the match commentator; Smith conceding deliberately a boundary to keep Bhuvan off the strike; Bhura sacrificing his wicket for Bhuvan; the match down to the wire with Captain Smith moving backwards to neatly hold a catch but his exultation lasting but only for a few moments as the fair British umpire firmly declaring  a six  as the Captain had stepped the boundary line  !  And the deafening silence suddenly mutating into a maddening uproar of the multitude that headed for the pitch and the home players!  Elizabeth too losing herself as she rushes in…. but then something holds her back!  ‘Iss story mein emotion hai, drama hai, tragedy hai’. 

Radha of Lagaan

In the heart of this action-packed film brews a quiet love, nay a quiet one-sided love!  Elizabeth Smith, the self appointed coach and mentor of the desi team, getting besotted with Bhuvan in their first meeting itself.  Her covetous gaze chases him as he leaves. Bhuvan responds quizzically to her tad informal gestures. She being part of the ruling elite and he a rustic in awe of her – the twain shall never meet! So will tell the commonsense.  But love knows no boundaries. For Elizabeth each mentoring session is an opportunity to advance her love, to unfold. The lover in Gauri at once alerts her, ups the antenna to the possibility of her territory being poached. She resents it, tries to be one up over Elizabeth. She remonstrates implicitly in the beautifully choreographed group dance, occasioned by the festival of Janamashtami.  Gauri putting her best dancing foot forward, but that singes Elizabeth, her heaving emotions so palpable. And I must say Javed understood the situation extremely well, that both the girls are to take themselves for Radha. Bhuvan though is not part of this ambivalence as he slips in a line:

Kanha ka pyar kisi gopi ke man mein jo pale, kis liye Radha jale…

Madhuban me jo kanhaiya kisi gopi se mile,

Kabhi muskaye, kabhi chhede, kabhi baat kare

Radha kaise na jale, Radha kaise na jale

Aag tan man me lage, Radha kaise na jale…

On the last mentoring day, Elizabeth takes Bhuvan aside and confesses. She is overcome by emotion and cries. Bhuvan understands but feigns ignorance, citing the problem of language. She assumes reciprocity. But quick comes Bhuvan’s confession to Gauri, to allay her fear. And what a way to confess – no emotional crap – the words that look beyond love:

सारे गाँव मे ऐक ही घर है जी के आँगन मे नीम का पेड़ है, और उन मे बड़ा सा खेत भी है

एक जोड़ा बैल, दो गाएँ और  तीन   बकरियाँ भी हैं, और जानू हूँ पगली ऊ घर मोरा है

और एक बात सुनती जा, तू माई को पसंद भी है

The trio that follows O re chhori, o ri chhori maan bhi le baat mori has  Gauri ensconced and secure in her realities – that Bhuvan is hers – and Elizabeth, on the other hand, is soaring and ecstatic in her fantasy.  Wonder if fantasy is more intoxicating than the reality within one’s embrace?  I quote the English lines lip-synced by Elizabeth:

My heart it speaks a thousand words, I feel eternal bliss,

The roses pout their scarlet mouths like offering a kiss

No drop of rain no glowing flame has ever been so pure

If being in love can feel like this then I’m in love for sure…

This sure has the claim to be the best composition of Rahman and its visualization is breathtaking.

But wait!  There is a cruel twist in the tale. From cloud nine she comes down crashing to an emotional abyss. Her team winning the match but the reality that the man she loves is not hers stares at her!  That it was an affair that was not!  She braves it though. I guess, love unrequited has its own rainbow!  As she leaves, she touches the feet of Bhuvan’s mother in the tradition of a Hindu bride.  Bids adieu to her Bhuvan perhaps much against the cry of her being.

In the concluding shot,  Amitabh, who is the sutradhar in this film, informs almost somberly:

एलिज़ाबेथ अपने मन मे भुवन की मूरत लेकर वापस इंग्लेंड चली गयी और सारा जीवन अविवाहित रह कर भुवन की राधा बनी रही

The Unique Selling Point of this film is that it builds itself credibly, brilliantly on two improbabilities, will prefer to call them fantasies.  First, a sophisticated, cultured woman falling for a country bumpkin.  Second, a village in the grip of a drought accepting the challenge of the British masters in their own game, which is cricket.

(All pictures courtesy IMDb)

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Gaurav Sahay is a Delhite largely though with substantial exposure to urban and quasi rural Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. He has a Masters in Business Administration and a law degree from Delhi University. He is a banker by profession but has interests on a range of subjects, including astrology, homeopathy and sports. He is passionate about films, in particular Hindi. His understanding however is not populist but critical and at times transcending. He writes in English and Hindi with equal command. His essay on Guide is ample evidence of the writer and critic within him.
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