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'Lagaan destroyed me'

By PATCY N
June 16, 2021 12:54 IST
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'As an actor, it gave me such a great role that after that whatever, work I was offered, it was never fulfilling.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

"I call myself the Lagaan University graduate," declares Amin Hajee.

The actor played the mute drummer Bagha in Ashutosh Gowariker's movie epic.

As Lagaan turns 20 on June 15, Amin Hajee shares some interesting stories from the sets.

"(Aamir's former wife and Lagaan co-producer) Reena Dutta was the one we were all scared of. She would watch us like Bigg Boss in the Bigg Boss house," he tells Patcy N/Rediff.com.

I knew the script of Lagaan five years before Aamir Khan agreed to be a part of it.

I have been a part of Lagaan as a bouncing board because Ashu (Ashutosh Gowariker) is a very old friend. He used to come home, and he had narrated the script to us.

We didn't know whether the film would ever get made because Ashu kept meeting people.

One day, he told me, 'I think you can play the role of Bagha, the mute temple drummer. You will need to learn the drums because Aamir is not sure about casting you.'

I had done a cameo in Ghulam with Aamir.

I learnt to play the drums in three months.

One day, Ashu told me, 'I am going to Aamir's house for some work. Why don't you come and play the drum?'

I still remember standing outside Aamir's house, playing the drum.

Aamir was shocked.

That day, Aditya Lakhia had also come to meet Aamir.

After that, Aditya and I were called for an audition.

That evening, Ashu called me and told me that I was selected.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

When (Aamir's former wife and Lagaan co-producer) Reena Dutta called me to sign the contract, she told me that she saw my audition with Aamir and their son Junaid -- he was seven or eight then -- and he told them that he liked me as a drummer.

I think Junaid was the one who sealed the deal for me.

I had worked with Ashu and Aamir before, but that still did not guarantee a part for me. Because they liked my audition, I was lucky to get the role.

I realised that the other actors in the film were much more trained and experienced.

They were either trained at NSD (National School of Drama) or IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) members. Some of them had acted in many films.

Raj Zutshi had acted much more than me.

Aditya Lakhia had worked as an assistant director and actor in a couple of films like Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

I was Ashutosh's khabri on the sets of Lagaan.

The actors used to play cards during the break, but Aamir and Ashu did not like that.

When Ashu told them not to, they were hurt because they were not accustomed to being told something like that.

I told Aamir and Ashu that it did not go down well with other actors.

They were theatre actors and teachers from NSD.

They were mind-blowing.

They wondered, 'Why are they trying to discipline us? We have been there, done that.'

Aamir is such a genius, he called all the actors and told them, 'From tomorrow, I will play cards with you after pack up.'

So we started the Lagaan Playing Cards Club, which would start in the evenings and go on till late at night.

Since I did not play cards, I would be in charge of food in the middle of the night.

I used to make omelettes for the guys.

Aamir had done a Pepsi ad at that time, so we had a fridge full of Pepsi.

The cast members were very clever. They soon caught on that I was the khabri, so they would stop talking as soon as I would enter the room.

During the night shifts, Aamir would play cards with them from 6 am to noon.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

We shot for five months.

The actors were exhausted by then and they would make songs, especially Raghubir Yadav, like Kab Chutegi Lagaan.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

When we went on a world tour in America, I would get the food because many of them were vegetarians.

In America, you don't get veg food easily, or at least that was the case in 2001.

9/11 happened during our world tour.

We were in Atlanta then. We drove overnight and reached Houston and we were stuck there for three weeks.

We didn't have any vegetarian food. At the most, there was pizza bread and cheese.

I remember it was getting very tough.

Aamir had gone for a meeting to Canada before 9/11 happened and was stuck there. Ashutosh was also not there, so I was in charge of these guys.

I used to call families from the Aga Khan (the Ismaili) community of which I was a part, and they were very happy to hear from me. They would bring rice, dal, roti and sabzi in dabbas and give us. They never took money from us.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

Reena Dutta was the one we were all scared of. She would never smile.

She would watch us like Bigg Boss in the Bigg Boss house.

We never knew what she was thinking, but we could see her looking at us.

She made us uncomfortable.

She kept us on our guard all the time, so that we would not get too carried away or have too much masti.

But we could see how she would execute the most difficulties tasks with aplomb.

When 10,000 people came to shoot, it was executed flawlessly.

Reena may have been a new producer, but she was in complete control.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

I have done 26 films after Lagaan, but they have not been as difficult.

Lagaan was shot in a desert. So in the winter, the temperature at night would go down to minus.

We would do push ups in order to keep warm, as we were wearing dhoti and ganji. Some of us were bare bodied during the shoot.

We started the shoot in January and ended in June.

In the summer, the local junior artistes used to faint.

We had to bowl, bat, field and run. It was physically daunting.

In those five months, Raghubir Yadav and Daya Shanker Pandey had surgeries.

Shri Vallabh Vyas and Rajesh Vivek had to wear wigs, which would start itching in the heat.

We had a lot of night shoots. For 45 days, we would be sleeping in the day and waking up in the night.

We would wake up at 6 pm.

The location was an hour away from where we stayed.

After the shoot, we would all sleep in the bus, reach the building where we were staying, have breakfast and go to sleep. Then wake up in the evening, eat and leave for the shoot again.

The most difficult part was being away from family.

Of course, they paid us handsomely, but it was still tiring.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

Aamir and Ashutosh were looking for Britishers who would be sitting in the pavilion during the match.

They decided to offer these parts to family members of the actors, who came to India for eight to 12 weeks for the shoot.

One of them was Charlotte, who had finished her master's degree in anthropology.

She came with her brother Jamie Whitby Coles. He's the one who puts a gun to Aamir's head when he's distracting a deer.

Charlotte played table tennis well; she would be Aamir's partner and beat us in mixed doubles.

I was smitten by her, and our romance started.

I am lucky I got my soul mate from Lagaan.

After the film, we got married.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Amin Hajee

Professionally, Lagaan destroyed me. Because as an actor, it gave me such a great role that after that whatever, work I was offered, it was never fulfilling.

The kind of writing Lagaan had, every one of us was a hero in the film.

The stuff I was offered was not even half as well written as Lagaan.

Luckily for me, Ashu asked me to co-write Swades with him, so I did.

After that, I took an interest in writing films like Dangerous Ishq, Haunted - 3D, 1920...

In 2012, I started writing my own film Koi Jaane Naa. I directed it and Charlotte produced it. It's streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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