In August 1999, Nitin Desai moved to Bhuj with his set designers to build a 19th century village. It took them three months to recreate Champaner from 1893 on 37 hectares of land.
On January 2, 2000, a team of 350-plus reached the village but since snakes and scorpions had already taken up residence, about 60 of the ‘pardesis’ (visitors) moved into rented apartments in the newly-constructed Sahajanand Towers, and the rest into Bhuj’s only three-star hotel. For five months, 17 days and 10 hours, Bhuj/ Champaner was home to Aamir Khan and his Lagaan family.
Even as the temperatures oscillated between 47 and 4 degrees, the unit sought to bring to life a once-upon-a-time yarn that traced its roots back to the revolt of 1857.
Once the mutiny was crushed, a fatalistic calm settled over the farmers across the country as they resigned themselves to paying a portion of their harvested crops as tax to the British for the next 100 years. The ‘lagaan’ was not relaxed even during draught. In fact, the raja’s emissaries arrived in Champaner that had not seen any rain for a year, to announce that the ‘gaonwalas’ (villagers) would have to pay ‘duguna lagaan’—double tax — that year.
The pall of gloom lifted momentarily when an arrogant British captain offered to waive off the tax if the locals beat his team in a friendly cricket match. But while Captain Russel’s boys were seasoned at wielding the willow and bowling the cherry, Bhuvan’s motley XI had never heard the word cricket before the dare.
Cricket was played both on and off the sets at Bhuj and the do-or-die matches reflected both desperation and determination. In reel life, a miraculous victory could mean a new beginning for the villagers. In real life, it could mean a new-wave chapter in Bollywood history.
Aamir Khan, in a ‘dhoti’ through 18 reels, had accepted the challenge of an off-beat script. He had even put his own money into the film but remained unsure about its commercial viability all through its making. Like in Champaner, Bhuj too had gone through a lean monsoon the previous year, and waited as anxiously for the heavens to open up. A week before the film wrapped up, the rains came. Tears mixed with it as the unit said bye.
On June 10, 2001, Lagaan opened in the theatres. It knocked the critics for a six and bowled the masses over, in India and abroad. At the Locarno Film Festival, it was screened four times on public demand and won the Prix du Public, making the audience dance in the aisles.
Its dubbed version was released in Italy and in Paris, it enjoyed an unprecedented nine-week run. It made it to the UK Top 10 and was the first Indian film to get a nationwide release in China. It’s also listed in ‘The 100 Best Films of World Cinema’.
Lagaan was the third Hindi film to be nominated for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, after Mother India (1957) and Salaam Bombay (1988). When the announcement was made on February 12, 2002, that it had made it to the final five and was in contention for an Oscar, it flagged off nationwide celebrations. I spoke to director Ashutosh Gowarikar before he took off for the gala. He was optimistic of a win... So was Aamir... So was India.
It’s an annual ritual to watch the Oscars ‘live’. This time I was expecting a miracle. But miracles happen only in the movies. Lagaan lost the statuette to the Bosnian film, No Man’s Land. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Hey, we had even planned a cover with Aamir and Ashu holding aloft the Oscar...in our dreams!
I saw the film in the theatre in its silver jubilee week. After 25 weeks, the crowds had thinned. Eros cinema was at the other end of town but my husband and I braved a train ride to take our daughter, Ranjika, to her first movie. She was barely two and refused to be confined to her chair. She scampered around, we struggled to keep an eye on her and the happenings on screen.
In between I lost her during a visit to the washroom. One moment she was there, the next she was gone. I raced around looking for her, even sped down to enquire if a child had wandered by. I hurried back in to get my husband to join the hunt. And I was greeted by a tiny fist punching the air as the ball sailed across the boundary on screen. Ah for the magic of celluloid that had drawn a moppet into a darkened auditorium without her mom’s hand to guide her in!
This Wednesday Lagaan turns 10. “Has it really been a decade?” a friend wondered. Yes, it has. Let’s raise a toast to the only Indian movie to be listed at Number 14 on Channel Four’s 50 Films to See Before You Die. I have seen it, hope you have too!