Lagaan (2001): A landmark Bollywood film that gracefully combines art and entertainment

The Bollywood film chosen for analysis in this essay is Lagaan, released in 2001.  The film, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker stars Amir Khan and Gracy Singh in lead roles.  The movie combines popular formulaic elements within the time-tested format of sports movies, making it a unique production to have come out of Bollywood in many years.  Not only was the movie make a lot of money at the box-office (both in India and abroad), but it also attracted positive reaction from the critics.  This is evident from the fact that it was one of the movies nominated for Best Picture under Foreign Language Movie category in the following year at the Academy Awards.  It is hoped that reasons such as these make Lagaan an appropriate choice for discussion in this essay.

Before getting the detailed analysis of the film, a brief summary of the story is called for.  Lagaan is a fictional story set in nineteenth century India, when the country was still under the rule of British Empire.  A group of villagers from a remote village in the arid central India “take up a British officer’s challenge to play cricket in order to get a reprieve from a crippling tax imposed by the colonial government” (Kasbekar, 2007, p. 366) If the villagers beat their colonial rulers, their taxes are waived off for three subsequent years.  In the eventuality they lose they will be compelled to pay thrice the usual taxes   Moreover,

“The fact that the villagers have never played cricket and do not know the first thing about the game establishes the foundation of the film’s narrative and dramatic structure. The British officer’s sister takes pity on the villagers and secretly teaches them the game so that they have a fighting chance. The cricket match takes up the final hour of this nearly four-hour long film and is marked by moments of comedy, drama, and suspense.” (Ganti, 2004, p.25)

Lagaan has proven to be a watershed event in mainstream Indian film industry.  This view is supported by the fact that in the years since its release, no other movie had attained such overwhelming popular and critical acclaim.  At the time when Lagaan was released, Bollywood was going through a crisis of sorts.  Most films released by the film studios of Mumbai (which is where Bollywood is headquartered) were failing badly at the box-office.  There were multiple reasons behind this decline, but the foremost among them is the lack of creativity and novelty in the scripts.  Even regular movie-goers got fed up with the bland, repetitive and unimaginative story lines of a majority of films at the time.  It is in this context that Lagaan should be studied and evaluated, for it then lucidly illustrates the uniqueness of Lagaan (Vasudevan, 2005, p.135).

Bollywood is differentiated from the Independent/Art House film industry in India.  The former is generally considered as a money making industry with importance given only to “entertainment”.  This is in direct contrast to the Art House film industry, which adopts its ethos based on “artistic merit”.  While Lagaan, without doubt, is a mainstream Bollywood production, it stands out for its artistic merit as well, as will be illustrated below.  Firstly, given the lengthy four hour duration of the film, pacing the film becomes a challenging task for the director.  Ashutosh Gowariker, the director, does a commendable job in this department as he employs ‘song and dance’ sequences at appropriate junctures to keep the audience engaged to the narrative.  The background score given by A.R.Rahman also deserves mention here, as it is one of his masterly works.  The task of finding a resonant blend in combining classical Hindustani music with classical Western is never easy.  Rahman overcomes these challenges without a hitch and in the process delivers a unique musical work.  Again, such ground-breaking works are not usually associated with Bollywood in general, which further goes to emphasize the enduring significance of Lagaan to the mainstream Indian film industry.  Equally competent is the choreographic sequences in the film.  Gracy Singh, who plays the role of the jealous village-girl in love with Bhuvan (played by Amir Khan) is particularly graceful in the dance sequences.  Being a trained classical dancer, she carries off the role with great ease.  The chemistry between the lead pair, especially in moments of romance, is another area where the movie scores (Kasbekar, 2007, p.378).

Through a well thought-out interlay of drama, romance and song-and-dance, Gowariker balances the various imperatives of Bollywood entertainers.  It is apt to bring to light at this point that Bollywood and Cricket have been two major sources of entertainment for the Indian public.  In many ways, Cricket precedes Bollywood in finding a place in the collective Indian public consciousness, for the sport in India is as old as the British Raj.  Bollywood, on the other hand, would have to wait for the advent of film and sound technology to grow into a large commercial enterprise that it is today.  Lagaan benefits no end by bringing Cricket to the realm of Bollywood and thereby creating a risk-free approach to commercial success (Ganti, 2004, p.232).  The employment of the game of Cricket as a metaphor for larger and real struggles in life is a brilliant conception on part of the director.  Not surprisingly then, the Cricket match agreed to by the villagers and their British administrators comprises the central sequence in the film, the detailed discussion of which is as follows (Tripathi, 2002, p.38).

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