EXCLUSIVE: Lagaan is probably my most unprepared performance, says Aamir Khan
Aur Bhuvan ka naam itihaas ke panno mein kahi kho gaya... This concluding voice-over in Lagaan (2001) is perhaps the exact opposite of what the film — in which he played an iconic character — did to Aamir Khan’s career. Both Khan and the film won several accolades and 20 years later, the memories are still so vivid in his mind. As he talks to us for an exclusive chat via zoom call, the actor opens up about the highs and lows while shooting the film, the unique mix of casting, what if it released and possibility of a remake. Excerpts:
Lot of people still wonder if Lagaan was loosely based on a true story or was it a work of pure fiction...
Lagaan was entirely a fiction; there was no truth in it at all. However, the script that Ashu (director Ashutosh Gowarikar) wrote is so close to real life — that something like this could have happened. There were many British officers at that time, there were many Indians at that time, so aisi koi kahaani agar Hindustan mein ghati hogi toh humne uske baare mein suna bhi nahi hoga. Is it a likely story? Yes, it is a likely story, but it’s not based on fact. It’s fiction, but very close to fact.
I remember from one of our earlier interactions, you had mentioned that you didn’t get to spend a single day with Ashutosh and discuss about your character, Bhuvan. And it was a night before your first day of shoot in Bhuj that you asked him to sit for sometime. Would you recall this story in detail for us?
(laughs) Yeah, he said apne paas waise bhi time nahi hai, jo tu kar raha hai, yahi correct hai. Lagaan was such a prep-heavy film that neither Ashu nor I had the time to sit and discuss my character at length. So literally, the last day I said, ‘You’ve spent time all other actors, mere saath ek bar bhi nahi baitha. You’re just assuming that I would do it right’. So, we didn’t really prepare together. Actually, I had been preparing in my head slowly, but I had never got the chance to share with Ashu ki main aisa soch raha hu, and if also imagined Bhuvan like that? So that was the day I got to share with him and luckily it worked for Ashu also, and what we were thinking, we were on the same page.
Also, the fact that you used to prepare your lines a night before the shoot, is that true?
I had to struggle with my diction. What happens normally is, like in PK, I’ve spoken Bhojpuri or in Dangal, I’ve picked up Haryanavi. But I had 3-4 months then, every word had to be pronounced correctly and I had spent three-four months with the phonetics teacher. But, I didn’t have that prep time in Lagaan. I would literally learn my lines on a day before the scene was to be shot.
You were also turning producer with Lagaan. Did that at all play a part in you getting lesser time to prepare for your role?
Certainly. I think my lack of prep in Lagaan, I can honestly blame it on my work as a producer (chuckles). Itna kaam tha as a producer ki main as an actor prep nahi kar paaya. Also, it was the first film I was producing, and I was paying more attention that nothing goes wrong. So, Lagaan is probably my most unprepared performance, as a result.
Also, Ashu had given two films before this, which weren’t so successful. So, while I trusted him, his script and his ability that’s why I was going ahead, par kahin par ek darr bhi lagta hai ki, yeh beeda utha kar humne kono galti toh nahi ki (laughs).
So at what point were you convinced that nothing will go wrong from here?
I remember one day, we were shooting for a scene where we see the clouds coming and the temple boy is playing the drum, making noises, and we all get excited... ghanan ghanan ghanan, arrey baarish aane wali hai. So, Ashu put the shot, set the trolley and said he wants to capture our faces. He told us to come from different directions and gather at one point in the frame. We did a couple of rehearsal where I came and stood in front of the camera, and everyone else collected around me. Aur mujhe laga aisa hi hoga. But later we realised, Ashu was doing the rehearsal only for the trolley timing, he wasn’t bothered about us. After he got the trolley timing right, he said, now, ‘I’ll give you your positions’. He made Ismail, Bhura and others stand in the center, and told me to go towards the extreme corner.
I got a bit scared and asked him, ‘Aren’t we doing a bit too much of an experiment? After all, we were making a mainstream film that audience should like. He told me, ‘See, you’re not my hero, Aamir. You are Bhuvan. For the village, you’re one of them. Usko bhi hum jyada bhav nahi dete, we don’t consider him a leader’.
So, as a director, he had conceived this that while the film is going on, Bhuvan is like any other villager and only when he says, ‘Sarat manjoor hai’, he becomes the leader and everyone follows him. He said until that time, I don’t want to keep you in center of the frame. After I got that answer from Ashu, I was sure that he knows the script inside out and I don’t need to worry at all.
I completely agreed with him that Bhuvan will become hero only when he does something heroic. Before that, it’s only according to casting that Aamir is a star and others are not, but film mein sab ek samaan hai. So that progression, Ashu had thought of, and that impressed me a lot.
Talking of the film’s casting, which one you think was the most unique of all and why?
I’m going to talk about the casting that didn’t happen. I find that very interesting. So, for the role of Bhura, the murgi wallah, which Raghubir Yadav has played, we had originally offered the film to Ravi Baswani, he is no more. But, he couldn’t commit so many days because his mother’s health. We were very keen for him to do that role, so I still miss Ravi, and sometimes wonder if he had done it, it would have been very charming.
Not that Raghubir ji wasn’t good at it. He was great. Actually, Raghubir ji was cast to play the role of Ram Singh, the translater to Queen Elizabeth. When Ravi said no, we told Raghubir ji to do Bhura’s part and we brought Javed Khan for Ram Singh’s part.
Another very interesting casting was of Goli. There were a number of actors who had been auditioned and one of the people who the addition was Daya Shankar Pandey, who finally played the role. He kept telling me to talk to Ashu that there are multiple roles in Lagaan and he could at least fit somewhere. But Ashu felt, Daya’s look was not right for the part. When I told him this, Daya laughed and said, ‘Kya baat kar raha hai yaar. Matlab ab Yash Chopra ji mujhe Dil Toh Pagal Hai mein legein? Agar main Lagaan mein suit nahi hota toh kaun si pictrue mein suit hounga. I only look like a villager, I don’t look like anything else’. How much we laughed, and finally, he was in the film. He’s a deadly guy.
Lagaan was a long film, so if it was to be made today, do you think the team could have brought the runtime down?
I can say with guarantee that no matter how hard Ashu tried, Lagaan ki length utni hi hoti. Back then also, we tried out best that we don’t make a 4-hour long film, but we couldn’t call it shorter. So, even today, we would have tried equally hard, and we would have again failed and we would still get a 3 hours 42 minutes long film. In fact, the original cut is 4 hours 2 minutes, and in the last edit of the film, we removed of a chunk of 18 minutes.
Talking of current times, as an actor-producer, would you have agreed if Lagaan was to be made only for web and release first on OTT platforms?
Well, I have nothing against OTT, it’s a great platform and I love watching things stuff there. I just feel that the work that I do and, the work that I make, I’m a cinema person, a theatre lover. I like watching it in the cinema hall. So, no matter when I make my films, I’d like the first exhibition to be in a cinema hall irrespective of when that happens. Of course, I’d like it to come on OTT finally, but I’m a person who’d first like to see it in on the big screen.
And what about a possibility of a remake if anyone ever comes up with an idea? Will you allow someone to touch the classic that you’ve made 20 years ago?
Why not? I’m not possessive about these things,” prompt comes the reply from Khan, and he continues, “If another creative team wants to do so, I’d not stop anyone. I’d say make a better one that what we did and maybe we’d learn from them of whatever we missed. I have no problem. In fact, I’d find it interesting to see how they make Lagaan in today’s times and how would Bhuvan do his part.”
Why not? I’m not possessive about these things. I mean, if another creative team wants to do so and bring their perspective and point of view, I’d not like to stop anyone. I’d rather say make a better one that what we did and maybe we’d learn from them of whatever we missed. I have no problem. In fact, I’d find it interesting to see how they make Lagaan in today’s times, because Ashu and I won’t be a part of it, so Bhuvan jo karega, kaise karega.