It was a script that almost got shelved for good. How would a story about a cricket match that settles a wager on tax enforcement in colonial India ever resonate with the audiences, let alone be taken seriously? Yet by forces mysterious - which includes in large part the midas touch of a one Mr. Aamir Khan - contemporary Indian cinema found one of its more glorious representatives in the form of Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who was largely unknown as a director due to his six year hiatus until then, Lagaan became an odd yet phenomenal success story. Once the script was adopted by Aamir Khan - who not only starred in it but also launched his own production house with it - the film began its journey to be forever ingrained into the annals of Indian film history. Ten years after its release, we look at Lagaan's legacy, as a symbol of India's defiantly unique film convention and also as the industry's only major flirtation with the west thus far. What was so special about this film?
Despite its whopping runtime of almost three hours and forty-five minutes, Lagaan had a magical spell at the box office. In an era of shortening attention spans, a nascent youth rebellion in the popular media, and India wanting to march forward into a shiny, technological future, this film, with its slow pace, historical setting and focus on rural India, somehow worked. Not just in India - where it became one of the highest grossing films of all time - but also abroad.
Noted (Western) film critic Roger Ebert reviewed Lagaan, calling it "an enormously entertaining movie, like nothing we've ever seen before, and yet completely familiar." The film was showered with numerous praises by the international media and film critics. The critic rating website Rotten Tomatoes gave it an impressive score of 95%. It got the ever-elusive stamp of approval from the West that many Hindi filmmakers constantly crave. But more than its international acceptance, Lagaan became a glowing testament to the resilience of a uniquely Indian cinematic genre - the masala film.
In terms of plot, Lagaan offered little that was wildly original or pathbreaking. Besides the quirky premise of a cricket match being used as a metaphor for colonial revolt, the film had the usual elements of romance, familial loyalties, caste/class rivalries and the good vs. bad struggle. All of this sprinkled with a good dose of song sequences (aided by one of the best soundtracks by A.R. Rahman). However, it was the way these conventional masala elements were weaved together and presented that made the film work. The romance was given an interracial angle, the caste divides were confronted directly and stereotypes were flipped over, and the fight between good and bad was almost completely non-violent yet still potent. It's another matter entirely that all but one of the white British characters were tainted as villains while the only deviant Indian character (among the assortment of innocent, well-meaning village folk) eventually showed repentance.
Lagaan's stupendous success got the Hindi film industry excited and inspired. Then came the feat which stunned a filmdom so eager for global, crossover, approval - the nod from the Oscars. The film's nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category sent the Hindi film industry and the media into a storm of excitement proclaiming the arrival of Hindi cinema on the global stage. The film, as it turned out, didn't win and the so-called "arrival" too fizzled out soon after. The countless efforts to concoct the magic potion of crossover success that were spawned by the Lagaan success story ended up being duds. Instead, the rising independent film scene in India has been getting attention from the international film festival circuits since then. These films, however, are maintaining a marked distance from the big budget, grandiose, melodramatic masala entertainers that Lagaan has now come to represent. Lagaan was "Bollywood", these films are not.
With Lagaan, Gowariker and Khan took a tried and tested formula unique to mainstream Indian cinema and tweaked it in just the right areas and proportions to give it global appeal. They created a mythological saga to parallel India's history, arranged as a platter of things that in a way epitomized India. The film ends with Amitabh Bachchan's authoritative narrator voice telling us that the story we've just watched might have happened, but is now lost forever in the pages of history. It was a neat packaging of rewritten history - a world unraveled, indulged, enjoyed and then wrapped up and stored away. Perhaps that is why Lagaan worked as a one-off wonder of mainstream Hindi cinema's brief encounter with global acceptance. It dared to play with the masala conventions, create a colonial fantasy and then carefully end the fable it had told, not overtly making any grand statements or harp on any serious issues. It might not have been a groundbreaking film, just a more evolved masala film that also benefited from good timing and tireless promoting by its makers.