Lagaan's dream run on screen and off it is a much needed reminder of winning against all odds in these pandemic ravaged times, notes Sukanya Verma.
You know that euphoric feeling when India miraculously wins a match they're on the verge of losing?
Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India is a magnificent ode to the sentiment in its unabashed fulfilment of the underdog fantasy. But the exciting scale, atmosphere, context and buildup leading up to the big match makes Lagaan memorable for more reasons than one.
Gowariker's ambitious triumph of spirit, which rose to international fame following an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, is full of popular tropes like song and dance, love triangles, rattle tattle rivals, snooty tyrants and sneaky tricks. But it's his idealistic messaging on matters of class, caste, secularism, disability and inclusivity while acknowledging the traditionalist, superstitious and bigoted beliefs of a period lends it heft.
Set in 1893, it's an epic fable of arrogance versus determination wherein the persecuted overcome their internal differences and prejudices to unite against a common enemy and realize the strength in solidarity.
Already dealing with an ongoing drought crisis, the poor citizens of Champaner village have no choice but to agree for a game of cricket with their British masters in exchange of tax exemption.
Here comes the tricky part. If they lose, they will have to shell out thrice the amount, which appears to be a certainty since they know nothing about the sport.
It's a long shot, but the gaonwallahs, led by Aamir Khan's Bhuvan, form a team of ragtag players, learn the ropes from their phirang foe's friendly sister, chant slogans of victory and vow to nab the No Lagaan World Cup at any cost.
The 'do or die' match, a meticulously crafted piece of 'Will they, won't they' that every single person in the audience knows the answer to, but is happily cheering for anyway, is the source of Lagaan's lasting appeal.
Cinema and cricket merge magically as Gowariker turns something planned on paper play out like a spontaneous contest before our eyes.
The film-maker's purpose has clarity and conflict carries weight. Lagaan's nearly four-hours long drama is split into three halves -- challenge, training and contest. Except things never once get tedious.
Celebrated cinematographer Anil Mehta enlivens its every mood in feeling and texture. His dynamic use of wide angles and close-ups as well as a uniformly earthy palette -- dusty browns and ochres form the rustic face of barren Champaner whereas a gilded radiance lights up British privilege -- bring out its larger-than-life drama to the fore.
On Lagaan's 20th anniversary on June 15, Sukanya Verma looks back at 25 of its most visually spectacular frames.
1. I love the strong feeling of solidarity this image conveys -- simple yet effective. All the grandeur in Lagaan comes from the 'can do' spirit of its protagonists.
2. Do not judge a book by its cover. The Champaner squad is here to stump everyone who believes otherwise.
3. When we first spot Aamir Khan, he's hiding behind the trees and watching the British officers hunt a chinkara for sport highlighting his compassion and their cruelty. Mehta captured the disgust in his eyes to good effect.
4. Desperate for rains, the sight of clouds gathering in the sky sparks off a celebration among the farmers. It's a false alarm and the ensuing disappointment is palpable under Mehta's vision.
5. Rising to challenge could not be more emphatic when a proud Bhuvan agrees to the egotistic Captain Russell's challenge of defeating him in cricket or paying 'teen guna lagaan.'
6. Massive sets would be an understatement, an entire village was constructed on the desolate grounds of a Kutch village to create an authentic, lived-in rural atmosphere in colonial India. Several scenes capture its detail in fervor but this night time view is simply sublime.
7. There's a fascinating duality to this frame. On one hand, it offers a broad view of a village meet in progress. On the other, it shows how diminutive they appear compared to the enormous task they've undertaken.
8. The Raja is an intriguing character. He doesn't enjoy any real powers but hides his redundancy behind luxury and decorum. The artist working on his portrait, how gingerly he strokes the feather on the royal safa brooch, understands this vanity only too well.
9. Who's spying on whom? It's a lovely to and fro of action and yet another instance of Mehta's gift for visual storytelling.
10. Bhuvan and his young friend do a rowing action on a heap of hay against the moon even as Mehta's clever camera angle gives it the semblance of a boat, goes well with O Mitwa's optimistic ardour.
11. Face off scenes tend to be a clash of side profiles, but Captain Russell and Co staring down at Bhuvan showing his back to the camera is equally formidable.
12. Beating the British at their own game is an uphill task, how's this for symbolic?
13. Lagaan's XI flaunt their weapon of choice as they prepare for battle -- playing to the gallery done right.
14. Yoga and temple in one artistic frame, Lagaan sure knew where our priorities lie in the not too distant future.
15. The harmonious coexistence of religions is a keen presence in some of our most beloved movies. Lagaan is all for it too, but Mehta keeps it characteristically subtle.
16. Anil Mehta marks the distinction between Bhuvan's ladyloves in imaginative ways.
A tiny spot of marigold between bare trees embodies the perennial gaon ki Gauri.
17. While the lonesome Juliet looks out of the majestic balcony of her palatial home.
18. I don't care much for the romantic entanglements in Lagaan, but A R Rahman's gorgeous music and Mehta's lyrical visuals make it a pleasure.
It doesn't matter then if these amorous declarations happen against the sun.
19. Or the moon.
20. That is a LOT of people on the hill. And they are not VFX generated. The sheer magnitude of this assembly adds to the exhilaration and significance of Lagaan's crucial match.
21. The view from the other side is equally electrifying.
22. They are playing for their land. They are praying to their land. What a compelling scene.
23. Twenty years later, I found myself in tears watching Team Champaner win once again because of all heart scenes like this.
24. Technically, they may be three different frames, but when juxtaposed highlight the brilliance of the same gesture translating to three difference emotions.
One by one, all three -- the bowler, the umpire, the batsman raises their arms in the air conveying the dramatic shift in mood -- it's a catch, it's a six, it's a relief.
25. Lagaan is a milestone in Aamir Khan's career. But when he first heard about it from his pal Gowariker, the actor harboured serious doubts about the feasibility of such a project.
Eventually though, he not only decided to act and produce it but went all out to promote it at the Oscars.
Lagaan's dream run on screen and off it is a much needed reminder of winning against all odds in these pandemic ravaged times.
'Koi humse jeet na paave, chale chalo. Bhale ghor andhera chaave, chale chalo.'
Words to live by.