Choosing Lagaan, a Bollywood film, as a ‘film I don’t see as often as I should’ was a bit cheeky on my part. I chose to focus on purely non-English language films for The Blind Spot Series because I felt like I didn’t watch enough of them and I wanted to rectify this by watching at least 12 of them in one year. But truthfully, I’ve watched quite a few Bollywood films recently, at least more than the average person, and I just had to sneak one into this series because I love them so much.
I studied Bollywood in the last year of my degree and, like all of my friends, fell head over heels for it. Watch the track below and maybe you’ll know what I mean:
Catchy, right?! This is one of the earlier songs in the film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) or “Never Say Goodbye” or KANK for short.
Which brings me to… Which Bollywood film next? I basically went through a ‘top foreign films’ list and this was the highest one on there. I had heard of it but never seen it (it’s themes didn’t correspond to the essay topics I wanted to write about) so now was an excellent opportunity!
You remember me moaning about La Dolce Vita (1960) and it’s ridiculous running time in the last Blind Spot? One thing I should tell you about Bollywood films now is that, aside from the amazing costumes, colours and musical numbers, the typical Bollywood audience likes their film long. I mean looooong. They don’t want to see a slice of life, they want awhole LIFETIME. Lagaan wracks up an impressive 224 minutes. Yeah. It’s a two-disc movie. How I ever got through the extended LOTR (2001-2003) series and the extended edition of Titanic (1997) I’ll never know.
But this didn’t phase me and, like the trooper I am, I watched the whole thing in one go. Lagaan or to use it’s much more incredibly boring English translation “Land Tax” centres on the protagonist, Bhuvan (popular Indian actor Aamir Khan) and his village of Champaner in the year 1893, when the British Empire in India was going strong. And you guessed it, they had to pay a lot of land tax. Specifically, they had to pay it to the commanding officer of the cantonment, the very typically English (and horribly tanned) Captain Andrew Russell.
To cut a very long story very short, the villagers see the Captain and his cronies play a game of Cricket. Somehow, Bhuvan ends up challenging the Captain and his team to a game of Cricket. If the villagers win, they don’t have to pay tax for 3 years. If they lose, they have to pay 3 times as much tax. And this isn’t just the village of Champagner, this is the whole province. The villagers have never played cricket before so you can guess they’d be miffed at Bhuvan speaking on their behalf, but once the bet has been made they’ve got no choice, so they just have to learn how to play cricket.
Cue training montage! …Lol, no, this isn’t Rocky (1976). Cue training lasting one hour and a half! The other thing with Bollywood films is that characters sometimes need to spend a long, long time suffering before the audience will truly accept that they have deserved to achieve their goals. Also, the time of the British rule is a common theme for Bollywood films as they show how far India has come and how they overcame the Brits to forge their own identity as independent Indians. Which to me is pretty funny considering the storyline in Lagaan is essentially an underdog story which we Brits thrive on so much. Lagaan isn’t normally what I go for in a Bollywood film: I like the helpless romances, the bright colours and the endless dance sequences. I like the Indian interaction with Western culture, I like English Vinglish (2012).
That’s not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Lagaan with it’s lack of catchy dance sequences and insights into modern India. Aamir Khan isn’t my favourite Bollywood actor but he’s captivating. I always imagine what it would be like to see the usual Brit actors in a Bollywood film, and it would look like they were taking the mick. It wouldn’t work. They would look like they weren’t being serious, and this is the main issue. Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan… This is their craft. This is their cinema, their culture. It works because they take it seriously and once Westerners get over what they think a film should be, I know they would start to enjoy Bollywood films just I did.
I don’t recommend Lagaan if it’s going to be your first Bollywood film, (perhaps Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) or indeed my personal favourite English Vinglish) but I do recommend watching it at some point. There’s a reason why it was nominated the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars that year and was the first Indian film ever to do so.
Do you have any favourite Bollywood films? Any that make you want to shake your hips and hop on a flight to Mumbai?