Monday, August 4, 2008

Lagaan: a semi-critical guide

S. and I took the opportunity one recent Friday night to enjoy a takeout biryani from a local Indian restaurant, and to take a break from our scrambled schedules to enjoy a night in watching a movie. Ever encouraging of this erstwhile project, S. had acquired a copy of a prominent film about cricket -- a Bollywood epic entitled Lagaan.

The film is the story of a village “in the heart of India”, during the days of British rule, where the local villagers are beset by both poverty and the tyranny of the Empire, as personified by the immensely arrogant Captain Russell, who gravely insults the local rajah/figurehead and, in a imperious snit, doubles the village’s lagaan, or land tax. Already scrabbling to survive under the prevailing drought, the villagers protest; the sneering captain stands firm but offers a way out: a game of cricket against the local army team. Win, and the land tax is forgiven for three years; lose, and it is tripled. Bhuvan, the brash but charismatic young farmer (played by the famous and influential Aamir Khan), is alone in standing up to this injustice; reasoning that his people have nothing to lose, he accepts the challenge.

Bhuvan is initially beset by resistance but ultimately wins over a few folk who form the core of his team, and the villagers soon take a fitful but sure interest in the sport of their occupiers -- cricket being not too dissimilar from a traditional game called gilli-danda, it seems; plus the team get a few surreptitious pointers from one Elizabeth Russell, the captain’s sister who has a kind heart and an eye for the dashing Bhuvan. The film does a good job at introducing a number of concepts of cricket as the team is learning them; there are specialist bowlers and batsmen, and the band of batsmen who aren’t terribly skilled form the tail at the back of the batting order (amusingly, the villagers’ tail includes Bagha, the mute strongman whose fearsome but risky slogging would go better in a Twenty20 format, and Guran, the wild-eyed village shaman, who adopts a highly unorthodox facing stance while screaming imprecations of derision against his foes).

In essence the film does a fine job of capturing the popularity of cricket as a victory of the national spirit; and the populist themes of the story are reinforced by the notion that this is, again, a timeless story from deep in the Indian countryside. (Given the reports of a stubborn Maoist insurgency making the rounds of late, it’s not clear that this is the only available brand of populism, but it seems to be the resonant one.) The villagers’ eventual victory at cricket is a complete and durable triumph, given the stakes; the British, struck by humiliation but also no doubt by the pointlessness of maintaining garrison in a territory that can yield no revenue, trudge off shamefully, leaving the gladdened villagers to their new favorite sport, and to the propitious rainstorm that portends self-determined prosperity and the eventual independence of the Indian nation.

The film is very long (3h 45), and the DVD version carries an intermission graphic at the halfway point (being home viewers, we introduced our own break-time about ten minutes before that). Typically for a Bollywood film, there are ample song-and-dance interludes, and also a stock but remarkably nuanced love story pitting Elizabeth against local village sweetheart Gauri for Bhuvan’s affections. But the film is a profoundly entertaining one, both for the legendary sweep of its tale (it earned an Oscar nomination, unusually for an Indian film) and as an entertaining story about cricket; and the biryani wasn’t too bad either.

Ramachandra Guha, in his excellent book A Corner of a Foreign Field, takes a look at the phenomenon of Lagaan within the context of both the world of cricket at that time and within the framework of the Indian experience. He thereupon takes a page or two to digress on the Mike Denness incident, roughly coincident with the release of the film in 2001, wherein the former England captain-turned-umpire sanctioned several Indian players for misconduct during a tour of South Africa; the ensuing controversy ultimately drove Denness out of the sport. One can read into Guha’s words the melancholy and frustration of the committed fan. (Nick Hornby, reflecting on the England soccer team, once opined that people in other lands may not have ready translations available for the sentiment “I hope they get stuffed”; I’m not so sure they’re the only ones nursing this particular complex.) But in his description of Sachin Tendulkar, in Guha’s eyes “the only flawless Indian”, one can also read the yearning optimism that inspires so many cricket followers in his native land.

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