More than fifty years after release it has a reputation founded on the timeless nature of the music. It’s jazz as it should be played – recognisable, coherent, but takes enough risks to avoid being staid.
Lagaan is only ten years old, but it’s Indian cinema’s Kind of Blue – one of the most recognisable examples of its genre. And here are four reasons why.
1. Lagaan consistently wins plaudits as a ‘quality’ Bollywood
Starting with its Oscar nomination, at that point only Indian cinema’s third, and building with every inclusion in a best of Bollywood list, the recognition for Lagaan continues to pile up.
And, for some, this critical approval really matters, going so far as to be the sole influence on what they choose to watch.
So Lagaan, along with a number of subsequent Aamir Khan productions, attracts the kind of people who don’t follow ‘Bollywood’ and sniffily laugh at Amitabh Bachchan’s singing (that is so a real life example).
2. Laagan hits some universal touch points
The film’s plot covers many familiar Bollywood bases – family ties, unrequited love, dreams of better things and so on – but it can also be boiled down to one, very familiar archetype.
A team of no-hopers overcome the odds to triumph. Is there a sporting film that doesn’t draw on this theme? A Hollywood example that springs immediately to mind is The Great Escape (like Lagaan, a sporting film but not a sporting film).
There are a number of Bollywood sports movies, including Aamir Khan’s own Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, though post-Lagaan it’s Iqbal and Chak de! India that I think of when I consider the ‘no-hopers’ mould, but it’s surely Lagaan that defines it.
Still on its recognisable theme, the down trodden versus their oppressors is usually a winner (and Lagaan scores highly here thanks to the eminently slapable British soldiers, with their smarminess set to full).
3. Lagaan was always aiming for greatness
The film’s tag line tells you all you need to know about where the film’s producers saw it within the canon of great films (not great Bollywood films, just great films).
The film’s own myth-making, aided by a ‘making of’ that was India’s first theatrically released documentary, tops up the impression that Aamir Khan was always aiming for greatness.
You only need to look at the team involved – among them A.R. Rahman (music) and Javed Akhtar (lyrics) – to know Aamir Khan was aiming high (and that’s before you get to his ‘perfectionist’ reputation).
4. Popular modern Indian cinema = Lagaan
Literally. A still from the film even graces the cover of Indian Popular Cinema, a narrative of cultural change (see above picture).
The book uses Lagaan, along with Dil Se and Taal, as being emblematic of a sea change in Bollywood’s fortunes.
“From being an embarrassment, running around trees has become a cult statement.
“It is not we who have changed, it is the people who are looking at us who have. It could be at Deauville in France or at Marrakech in Morocco, or anywhere else for that matter, the world has decided to take our movies to heart.”
– Amitabh Bachchan in 2004.
Indian Popular Cinema, on my reading list and promising to be an enjoyable, lightly academic read, has this to say about Lagaan.
“[Lagaan] quickly reminded sceptics of the power Hindi popular films are capable of exercising over the masses without sacrificing quality.
Deservedly, Lagaan is already being talked of as a film in the exalted league of Mother India (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Sholay (1975).”
Just this week it made yet another ‘best of’ list, this time hailing it as a modern classic of Indian cinema.
The irony of this post is that Lagaan is not quite my favourite Aamir Khan film (that’s a toss up between Rang de Basanti and 3 Idiots), but it is his most important film, and one of the reasons for that is that it’s Bollywood’s Kind of Blue.