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Book Review 1 – The Spirit of LAGAAN (2002)

January 4, 2009

8 years after its release LAGAAN has already the status of an all-time classic which keeps to entertain. In case you have not – and this is more for our foreign readers new to the colorful world of Bollywood – this is a must-watch!!!

The Spirit of LAGAAN, the book about the making of the film is a highly recommendable read for all film-fans as well as aspiring filmmakers and written by Satyajit Bhatkal who also directed CHALE CHALO, the documentary film showing how LAGAAN came into life. During the edit of CHALE CHALO, the film title being taken from one of the hit songs composed by A. R. Rahman, editor Sankalp Meshram suggested that this book should be written and the result is a 241-pages insight into the extra-ordinary hardships the crew had to face during the 6 months shoot in the Gujarati desert-like Kutch area  living in a self-set up hotel called Sahajanand Towers.

On the backside of the book it reads: “An idea that nearly died – A script no one had the guts to touch – A shoot that was all but abandoned – A spirit that refused to accept defeat.” Sounds a bit bombastic, but if you read what really happened, this tagline will sound quite modest. The book retells the events from Ashutosh Gowariker’s first pitch of the story to Aamir Khan on the 30th July 1996 all the way to the premiere in June 2001.

After a not successful career as actor and two flop films as directors Ashutosh Gowariker had professionally and emotionally pretty much hit ground zero. This frustration led to the decision that he wanted to write something he really cared for. Something personal. Meaningful. A historical story about villagers  in dhoti playing cricket.

Aamir Khan hated it. Ashutosh Gowariker went back into reclusion. Another year he spent writing and re-writing his brain child. Then he acted out each and every single role of the film for Aamir and this time he convinced him. Now it took Ashutosh another one-and-a-half years to go from producer to producer to producer till Aamir stepped in as producer. This was only the beginning of the 2 1/2 years production.

It is a bit disheartening to read that Ashutosh Gowariker having the bound script of LAGAAN in his hand could not convince a single Bollywood producer to believe in this film which later made it to the Oscars. It is very inspiring though to read how Ashutosh Gowariker and Aamir Khan succeeded in their artistic vision against myriads of odds. The ecstasy and agony of filmmaking. It’s all there on these pages. Thanks go out to the author Satyajit Bhatkal who worked on LAGAAN as a production executive and did a very good job in giving an authentic and vivid picture of the scenes behind the scenes.

Here two excerpts from the book by Satyajit Bhatkal:

Excerpt 1

14 AUGUST 1999

I turned up at [star and producer] Aamir’s house to find the living room transformed into a theatre. The massive window ledge set in ochre-coloured Jaisalmer stone was to serve as the stage from which Ashutosh would narrate. Facing the stage and lining the floor were huge mattresses covered with spanking white sheets studded with ample bolsters. The setting was fit for a mushaira (poetry conference). Dozens of people who would later be introduced as the cast and crew of Lagaan poured in. Most were strangers to me. I sat in my quiet corner studying their faces. Their expressions were a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. Curiosity, because they knew little about the script or their role in the film, and disbelief, because this was the first time they had ever been called for a narration for the full cast and crew of a commercial Hindi film!

[director] Ashutosh was nervous in anticipation of his performance. Aamir’s wife, Reena, was in a flap organising the sound system, the food and a million other things that go into hosting a narration. The only relaxed face around seemed to be that of Aamir, who to me looked like he had an ace up his sleeve.

The afternoon began with Ashutosh introducing the cast and crew to each other. “As I announce the name and department of each person, please put your hand up so that everyone knows who you are,” he said. The roll call began. Highly acclaimed theatre actors like Raghuveer Yadav and Rajesh Vivek, veterans like Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the art director’s assistants, Eknath Kadam and Sanjay Panchal, the star producer Aamir Khan and the financier Jhamu Sughand, all raised their hands to record their presence.

I was impressed. No names had been left out as being too minor, nor had there been any deference shown to a Jhamu Sughand or an Aamir Khan. Everyone seemed to be a member of the team with a function to perform.

Then began the narration. Ashutosh played every character in the script without any inhibitions. Within seconds he morphed from the mischief of Bhuvan to the coyness of Gauri to the capricious cruelty of Captain Russell. As the narration revealed the plot and sensibility of Lagaan, it became evident to me that the film promised to be a fundamental departure from mainstream Hindi cinema. The curiosity of the audience lolling on the white mattresses soon gave place to amazement, awe and a more upright posture. The makeshift theatre echoed with cheers and applause. The mushaira was rocking!

By the end, I was emotionally overwhelmed. I felt as if I had been privileged to preview an enormously ambitious artistic creation. The innocence and naivete of the story and characters – qualities long missing in modern cinema and modern life – captivated me.

Another chemistry seemed to be at work with the actors and crew members. Sitting together for four hours hearing the script they would all work towards filming, cheering together at the victory of the humble villagers, had created an intangible bond. They had drifted into the narration in large part as individuals, even strangers to each other. Now, suddenly, they seemed almost like a team.

Ashutosh invited comments, reactions and suggestions from all present. Considering the way his audience had reacted to the narration, I found his humility and eagerness in discussing the script striking.

Aamir announced that any of the actors who did not like the script or their role in the film were free to opt out. To preserve the secrecy of the script none of the actors auditioned had been given a narration until this day. Now, post narration, the producer was offering the actors a chance to reject the film.

Aamir requested all the actors and crew members to see the scale model of Champaner, the village in which Lagaan is set. The eight feet by eight feet model took my breath away. Even in that size, it seemed real. One could believe that the village belonged to the year 1893 and that real people lived in it. Ashutosh explained to whom each house in the village belonged, the direction in which the British troops would march, where various scenes would take place… it was as if he could see the film unfolding even now, long before shooting was to start. As with the script, with the scale model too he was hungry for comments and reactions, open to the idea that things could be changed.

That night, I lay in bed deep in thought. I was a lawyer by profession with ten years at the bar. I had no experience in film making. I had never been to a narration, never seen a set model, never even been to a shoot despite Aamir being a childhood friend. Yet, I intuitively felt that with Lagaan, something ambitious and important was about to happen, not just at a creative level, but at a human level as well. An attempt was being made to do things the way things should be done.

Two weeks later, the telephone rang again late at night. This time it was Reena on the line.

“Satya, would you be interested in working on the production of Lagaan? I need the help.”

I did not hesitate. I plunged into Lagaan, a decision I was never to regret. Aamir’s words had stayed with me: “Do something different.”

Excerpt 2

11 FEBRUARY 2000

Today is the first day on which we need large crowds – 800 villagers – to shoot. As it happens, they have been called for a 24-hour shoot, starting on the late morning of the 11th and continuing till dawn on the 12th.

This is probably not a good way to start with such a large group. These are people who have no bond with the Lagaan unit and are coming to shoot for the first time. How they will fare is anyone’s guess. The entire unit is on red alert.

The crowds arrive in their trucks and tempos. They are counted. Production is relieved to find that the 800 called for are all there. Feeding them and getting them into dhotis and kurtas is a huge logistic operation that would have been beyond the resources of the Mumbai team. Fortunately, by now the Bhuj actors are more than just actors, they are multi-purpose unit organisers. Pankaj Jhala, Anand Sharman and others queue the newcomers for various tasks. Jayantibhai Jethi teaches them how to drape the turban and the young men from Bhuj help put on the dhotis. With this massive army of volunteers, all 800 are processed and made ready for the shoot inside an hour. So far so good!

What happens thereafter, is far more fractious. After being prepared for shoot by 12.30, the crowds are made to wait a mile away from the shooting area for nearly three hours until their shot comes up. The crowd grows impatient. “How on earth does one explain to them that such waiting is inevitable in a shoot?” asks Rao in exasperation.

By late afternoon, the restive army is marched to set. The heat is searing and the crowd is irritable. They have been placed on the hill around the practice field and Aamir Khan is a small dot in the distance. This is far less interesting than they expected it to be.

‘Apu’s gang is in full swing, getting the crowd to remove sunglasses, plastic footwear and other modern accoutrements smuggled onto the set, as these will betray the period look. The heat is relentless. Some of the young men don’t like the way they are being ordered around by the second assistant director, Reema.

At a corner of the hill, an argument is simmering. The polite difference of opinion becomes less polite and Reema orders one of the village youth to leave the set. He retorts that he will take all his friends with him. He has around 150 friends here. If they all leave, the shooting day will definitely be lost. I rush over and work out an uneasy peace between Reema and the mutineers, that leaves Reema simmering. She complains to Apu.

By 5pm the day shoot is over, but the patience of the crowd, especially of the youth, has run out. Some want to leave without waiting for the night shoot. There is utter panic in the unit. No crowd means no shoot. Apu loudly announces to whoever will care to hear that Production has tricked people into coming; that they were called to see Aamir Khan, not to shoot.

Production is appalled at Apu’s allegation. They have spared no effort to build a relationship with the Kutchis based on mutual respect. This could well be undermined by arrogant behaviour with the villagers. A meeting of Production, Apu and Danabhai is swiftly called. The wardrobe area is converted into a council of war. Danabhai clarifies that the crowd has been called for a shoot, for which they are being paid and that the villagers are only too aware that it is a 24-hour shoot. Apu’s allegations are clearly without basis.

Danabhai then discloses the reason why the youth are anxious to escape.

“The youth are only upset at being ordered rudely. ‘Sit here. Stand there. Remove your chappals (footwear).’ They just aren’t used to it. No amount of money will make them accept what they perceive as an insult to their honour.”

Danabhai plants himself at the main gate of the set. Ruffled feathers are smoothed and hurt egos are assuaged.

As the night shoots starts, a horrible realisation begins to set in. The village crowd had been called in the early afternoon when it was unbearably hot, so they had dressed themselves lightly, with no sweaters or shawls. Now they have nothing to protect themselves against the deepening chill. By ten at night the desert winds begin blowing and Paul and the other Brits in the scene are unable to keep the cold out of their bodies or their minds. Universal central heating has destroyed their resistance to cold. Mercifully the scene requires the village crowd to hold flaming torches, mashaals, in their hands. The heat of the flame keeps them going, but between shots, the torches are extinguished, leaving them to the mercy of the biting wind. The crowds instinctively huddle together.

The scene being shot is the one where Bhuvan and his team are practising cricket at night under the light cast by mashaals held by the villagers, and appears at the end of the chale chalo song. The village team is in their usual garb. Aamir is wearing his thin vest. Kachra and Bagha are bare-chested and the others are wearing the thinnest of kurtas (shirts). Apu moves around in shorts and T-shirt. His assistants are also uncomplaining. The actors have no mashaals and are completely exposed to the bitterly cold wind, and yet they shoot through the night. The villagers watch them admiringly. If they can do it, so can we, is the sentiment.

Just a few hours back, they had threatened to walk off the set. Now they are our partners in adversity. We are together in the middle of a desert, the only persons for hundreds of miles together who are at work at this time of the night – watching cricket being played in the light cast by mashaals. There is something inspiringly insane about the whole idea, and that spirit infects the villagers too. The bitterly cold wind is giving birth to a new warmth and a new bond.

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