I wrote this appreciation of Lagaan for the Time Out website.
In early 2001, long before it travelled to the Oscars and inspired MBA case studies, Lagaan was just another Bollywood release in search of a strong opening. Not many pundits were confident that would happen; Ashutosh Gowariker’s film had risk written all over it. Hindi film directors had all but given up shooting outside of studios; Lagaan was set in a fictional village and shot on location in Kutch, Gujarat. The only big name in the cast was that of Aamir Khan – and his last three films had been failures at the box office (Gowariker, who started his directorial career with two flops, had fallen off the grid). The dialogue was in Awadhi, a dialect from Uttar Pradesh that was tricky, though not impossible, to understand. The shoot, as a making-of documentary attests, was long and often in danger of being scuttled. But Lagaan had a secret weapon, one that was cannily hidden until the film’s release. It was about cricket.
Lagaan wasn’t the first film to combine cinema and cricket, India’s two great obsessions. There was a 1984 film called All Rounder, in which Kumar Gaurav played an up-and-coming cricketer. Six years after that, there was Awwal Number, directed by Dev Anand and starring, in one of his early outings as lead actor, Aaamir Khan. As a film, it was just bad; as a cricket film, it was an embarrassment (the nadir being the soul-scarring Bappi Lahiri ditty “Yeh hai cricket”). Though he’d never admit it, Lagaan might have been Aamir’s attempt of atoning for that terrible wrong done to the Indian cricket fan. At any rate, Lagaan, his first film as producer, was a watershed as far as cricket on the big screen was concerned.
Set in 1893, the film’s about a group of villagers who accept a British Captain’s challenge to a cricket match. They’ll be exempt from paying tax for three years if they win; if they lose, they’ll pay three times the regular tax. The first half shows how Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan and the other villagers go about learning the game, which at that time was only played by the ruling British. The rest of the film is taken up by the match itself. That the on-screen cricket looked authentic (and true to the period – no paddle sweeps were used in the making of this film) was vital to the film’s success. After 20 years of increasingly detailed cricket broadcasts, the Indian public would have rejected anything with a false ring to it.
Another source of delight was the many sly references to the modern game. The match features live commentary, runners for injured players, non-strikers leaving their creases and being run out. The screenplay was peppered with tactics the modern-day fan would recognise – the field closing in to cut off the single, a new arrival to the crease being subjected to sledging. Match-fixing was very much in the news in 2001, and it makes an appearance here in the form of an Indian team-member who under-performs as part of a deal made with the British. Other details, like the pitch taking spin only after a day’s cricket’s been played on it, are used as dramatic plot devices.
More than anything else in the movie, it’s the character of Kachra, a lower-caste spin bowler with a withered arm, which makes evident just how well the makers of this film knew their cricket. Kachra is a composite of two real-life Indian spinners: Palwankar Baloo and Bhagwat Chandrashekhar. Baloo overcame massive odds to become one of the first Dalits to play for India; his 118 wickets on the 1911 tour of England remain one of Indian cricket’s great unsung feats. Chandra, who was part of the great trinity of Indian spinners in the 1970s, had polio as a child, which resulted in a withered arm much like that of Kachra. To this composite, the film adds a dash of Shane Warne, as seen in the cheeky recreation of the Australian’s “ball of the century” (Kachra bowls a befuddled Brit round his legs, the same way Warne did in his first Ashes series).
It might be another decade before we can assess Lagaan’s true place in the pantheon of Hindi cinema (it was definitely the beginning of brand Aamir, that canny mix of populism and smarts). As far as Indian sports films go though, it stands unequalled. Lagaan can be seen as a precursor to Chak De India and Iqbal (maybe even Paan Singh Tomar), films that put sports front and centre, and got the mechanics right. Also, in introducing Bollywood to cricket, Lagaan predated that very peculiar soap opera series, the IPL. Lalit Modi might claim that it was he who brought cricketers and movie stars on the same pitch, but history will show that Lagaan did it first, and arguably better.