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'Lagaan made me brave'

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 15.06.11

After pehla nasha ,Baazi bombed at the box office, Ashutosh Gowariker took a five-year break and wrote what was a bizarre script about a group of villagers ousting the British rulers from their land by defeating them in a game of cricket. Shah Rukh said no, the Bachchans thought J.P. Dutta’s Refugee was a better bet for Abhishek’s launch and even Aamir turned him down initially. Then Ashu went back to Aamir with a more developed script and the rest was history. On screen and off it. We took the writer-director back to the magic a day before Lagaan turns 10.

When you hear the word Lagaan now, what are the images and memories that flash through your mind?

There is no one big memory or image that comes to mind. Mine is a more holistic kind of recall. Not just the pre-production or the production or the post-release success. Lots of memories. Happy memories.

In these 10 years, do you think Lagaan has had an impact on the way films are made in India, especially in Bollywood?

I can’t say about the whole industry but it has made me very courageous, especially because when a film like Lagaan succeeds, you realise that the audience is ready for new stuff, for experimental stuff. Lagaan gave me the courage to make Jodhaa Akbar, Swades and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. Even for that matter What’s Your Raashee? which may have been a romantic comedy but so different in structure. Yes, Lagaan made me brave.

Going back to 2001, Gadar released on the same day and both Lagaan and Gadar made history at the box office. Do you think the two period films helped each other’s success, as Aamir believes?

No, I don’t think there is a co-relation in the two successes. Because the approaches of the two films were so different. Yes, both were about heroism but Lagaan’s was a non-violent approach. So many big movies have destroyed the other big films they have released with. So, I can’t take this twin success as a thumb rule. Aamir has been lucky that way. Whenever his film has released with another big film, his film has worked. So maybe the rule applies exclusively for Aamir. (Laughs.)

Is there still a regret about not winning the Oscar that fateful night at Kodak Theatre?

No, no… no regret at all. There was so much glory in reaching the final five nominations that you don’t feel sad for not winning the trophy. That’s how big the Academy Awards are. Also, because of that one nomination your film gets known across so many countries and audiences.

Would you consider the success at the Locarno Film Festival, where your film had to be shown four times on public demand and also bagged the audience prize award, a bigger one?

Yes, because the Americans at least know of baseball, which is similar to cricket. But the Europeans have no clue about this game. Yet every screening would have thunderous claps and cheers. See, when I was writing Lagaan, I knew very well that cricket as a sport primarily fascinated the male audiences in India. Women were not so deeply interested and the only reason they would watch cricket is because their husbands were interested. They wouldn’t bother about the intricacies of the game, like the ball getting old. And that’s why I put the character of Ram Singh, who was the commentator near the fence but was actually explaining to everyone what was going on in the middle. That helped the women in the audience and also was a great, great help when we showed the film to all the Italians and French and Germans at Locarno and elsewhere.

How did you manage to keep the cricket match a secret, despite having so many extras on the sets?

We made a very earnest request to everyone in the cast and crew explaining to them that this is a very special film and while there are elements of cricket in it, it’s essentially about the question of survival for these Indians, for their daily bread. If the cricket thing had got out, people would have simply considered it a sports film. The high drama of the content had to be highlighted. I guess everyone saw the point of view and kept the cricket a secret till the release.

Did you watch Lagaan with the audience at the theatres? Do you remember the experience?

Several times, in fact. It was an incredible experience. The movie theatre would become a cricket stadium. Lagaan’s was the only cricket match where everyone knew the result but it was thrilling enough for everyone to watch every time.

If you were to make Lagaan now, would you make it differently?

By choice, I would make it exactly the same. But 10 years ago, I was a different person and I had a different kind of innocence, which I don’t have today. So, I would make Lagaan today thinking that I am making it the exact same way but it may turn out to be different. Ten years is a lot of time and my mind has matured in this period.

Have you ever considered revisiting Lagaan for a possible sequel about Bhuvan and the other villagers of Champaner?

No, because Lagaan doesn’t lend itself to a sequel. At the end of the film, they had got rid of the opponent. So, we can’t possibly take the story ahead.

Any plans for June 15, 2011?

Yes, we will all be meeting up for a small internal kind of programme. Everyone who was involved with the film… we will try to get as many of them as possible. So, I guess, it won’t remain small. (Smiles.)

The lagaan xi married our two greatest passions a decade back. t2 picks xi random memories about the gamechanger of a movie

Lagaan? What’s that?

When word first trickled out about Aamir Khan turning producer with a period film, everyone was super excited. And then we heard the title — Lagaan. What’s that? What does it mean? Is it Lagan, as in hour? There was so much confusion around the title and it only became clear when the film released. It meant land tax.

That first promo

It must have been all of 10 seconds. One shot, that too in silhouette from a setting sun. A man, clearly Aamir himself, serenading a woman by wrapping her in her sari while standing in front of a cow! Not to forget the pulsating percussion of A.R. Rahman in the background. That mother of all teasers was so addictive that we would wait all day to catch it on TV between serials and shows.

It’s cricket!

Much before the likes of Christopher Nolan, who manage to keep the contents of his big movies entirely hush-hush till the release, director Ashutosh Gowariker and producer-actor Aamir Khan were able to keep the major surprise of Lagaan a secret. Although it had one of the biggest number of cast members and extras (10,000 for the climax), nobody spilled out the fact that despite its rural backdrop and period setting Lagaan was all about a cricket match. Only after the film reached theatres did people start telling friends and family that the film’s about saving tax by winning a game of cricket against the British.

Bachchan baritone

The Big B wasn’t @SrBachchan or such a product pusher back then. So hearing that booming baritone open a film was special. Very few films — like Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi — before had the privilege of the AB narration enveloping the movie. And this one worked perfectly, both at the start and in the end. “Iss aitihaasik jeet ke baad bhi Bhuvan ka naam itihaas ke panno mein kahin kho gayee...” — still ringsloud in the ears.

The cloud song

There have been innumerable rain songs but a cloud song? Nah! It was one of the first trailers on TV and one of the major attractions of the movie — the Ghanan ghanan song. For the opening stanza of this complex song that moved from expectation to excitement to disappointment, Rahman used a section he had earlier used in a song interlude in Doli Saja ke Rakhna. Gowariker along with cinematographer Anil Mehta, who won the National Award for the film, used long takes and elaborate crane movements to picturise the song. It looked grand on the big screen and set the tone for the rest of the film. How can anybody forget A.K. Hangal slowly standing up and appealing to the skies for rain? A classic!

A motion picture event

Watching Lagaan at the theatres was an event. We had only heard of films like Mera Naam Joker and Sangam, which were so long that they needed two intervals. In the years leading up to Lagaan, two-and-a-half hours to three hours was the norm. Gowariker, who loves to spin an elaborate tale, clocked close to 225 minutes with his 1893 epic. But unlike some of his later films, it never seemed that long in the theatres. It was one great matinee, evening or night at the movies, just how our cinema was always meant to be.

Foreigners can act!

Watching foreign actors in an Indian film has always been as scary as listening to Sherry Sir during, before or after a cricket match. They are usually the losers from the West, fit only to be extras in their own movies and capable only of hamming it up in our films. And when they spoke Hindi, it invariably turned out to be a joke. Lagaan miraculously broke that trend. The foreigners, especially Paul Blackthorne as the bad Britisher and Rachel Shelley as the gori in love with the desi kisaan, were honest and heartfelt. And their Hindi sounded real, not ROFLOL.

At an eden gardens near you

Every movie theatre would transform into a cricket stadium for the last one hour of Lagaan. From Priya to Menoka, cinema halls would turn into Eden Gardens with the Champaner XI being Team India and the British XI being the big, bad team to beat. Popcorn and cola in hand, every run would be cheered in the movie as if a real cricket total was being chased. And if there was a four or a six by Bhuvan or Lakha, the movie audiences would erupt like a Club House gallery. No, let’s not even get to that last over — replete with no-ball, six, run out and everything in between — which became the ultimate coming together of India’s two greatest passions — cricket and Bolly.

Khan wars & AB Jr Launch

With great films comes great trivia! And Lagaan was no exception. The thrill factor high-jumped when it became known that Ashutosh had first approached Shah Rukh Khan for the role of Bhuvan and how SRK had sweetly turned down the film. What’s more, Ashutosh had then gone to the Bachchan house hoping to launch Abhishek with Lagaan. But it was always meant to be Aamir and the start of Aamir Khan Productions.

Yeh Oscar Humein de do!

When Lagaan became the third Indian film to win an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film — after Mother India and Salaam Bombay — hopes really ran high. Even Aamir Khan flew to Los Angeles. The man who stays away from film awards in India, as if they are the plague and who even sued a magazine for using his picture to promote their film awards, thought that the Oscar was worth the effort.

He and Gowariker went and lobbied in America but struggled to show the looooooong film to a lot of the 6,000-odd members of the Academy. We all woke up that fateful morning and before we could digest the horrible pronunciation of Lagaan by presenters John Travolta and Sharon Stone during the nomination announcement, our hearts broke to bits. We lost in the last over.

A different aamir

He has always been a very competent performer and one of the best star actors of our times but with Lagaan, Aamir Khan went to level next. He stopped doing the Melas and the Manns and became more “careful and conscious about where his name went”. Was it Kiran Rao, whom he met on the sets of Lagaan (she was an assistant director), who brought about the change? Or was it just the creation of something like Lagaan that made a more responsible star out of Aamir? Whatever it was, it was worth the lagaan!