Ashutosh Gowariker's 'Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India', starring Aamir Khan in the lead, is one of the landmark films in Indian cinema. Set in the village of Champaner in Gujarat's Kutch area, the film was released on June 15, 2001. Cricket plays a main role in the movie which brilliantly captures the rustic tale of poor farmers who live 'under the boots' of a colonial power and how they triumph over oppressive British officers.
'Lagaan', which was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at Oscars 2002, is still considered one of the best Indian films in terms of direction, cinematography, editing and music. Ace cinematographer Anil Mehta talks to Onmanorama about the shooting of the crucial cricket match in the climax of the film when a bunch of villagers defeats the British players in the game that was completely alien to them.
Mehta remembers that shooting the climax scene was quite an expedition as it required a lot of planning by writing out the entire match on a ball-by-ball account. “It was important for everybody to know what was happening when each delivery was being bowled. That clarity was required because we don't shoot films in sequence," he elaborates.
It took around 30 days of shooting just to cover the match and each ball had a story. Each member in the team had defined pre-stories and roles in the match. Mehta was also insistent about not getting into a coverage syndrome. He shot on the axis quite often, which means not continuous and linear, but also did specific shots for specific characters depending on the state of mind or call of the drama. “There were times when I was distant on a long lens shooting the batsman or times when I was up close or laid a track just to make some points a little more emphatic,” Mehta narrates.
Treatment of the visuals
In order to cover a cricket match, thinking out the whole process and then executing it for the maximum dramatic effect were essential. There were shots that required less coverage and some other needing a lot of emphasis. “If one of the batsmen is really angry, then there was a more push-in kind of a track with a wider lens and if there was a nervous Kachra (Aditya Lakhia), I gave a jagged use of the camera. Discovering the language was also a process which I learnt on the course of the shooting," he recalls.
The stunt team of the film had to make a soft landing ground when we decided to shoot an action sequence in which Lakha (Yashpal Sharma) makes a dramatic switch and takes a brilliant diving catch. A lot of the actors bruised themselves while falling and trying to catch the ball as it was also really sunny in Gujarat during the shooting.
Pulling in the English actors
The English actors had to work really hard as it was unsettling in the hot condition. “The advantage with the English actors was that by the time we got down to shoot the scene they were already there for two months and started getting used to it,” Mehta says.
Some of the actors were cricketers and Ashutosh was particular they knew the game. In spite of all this , actor Ben Nealon dislocated his shoulder. The only artiste who didn't have any idea on playing cricket was the captain/villain Andrew Russel (Paul Blackthorne).
Involving the crowd
Mehta also remembers that it was a logistical nightmare to gather the crowd for the match. “N-number of fancy and foolish ideas were made to bring the crowd in. One of those ideas was to stage a cricket match and advertise it in the neighbourhood hoping that the villagers would come. But this was a period film with serious drama.
It was also important to script down every reaction. Finally, we had to rustle up people from neighbouring villagers. One day we got around 3,000 people and later reduced to 1,000 and 500,” he says.
Mehta, with the help of five additional operating cameramen from Mumbai and additional crew, built a list of shots, angles and coverage points just to shoot the scene. It was also important to make the crowd wear a period clothing other than the trousers and coloured clothes they came wearing. Feeding the crowd on a hot sunny day was also something to be taken care of.
The film was shot in an era of pre-VFX and digital effects and therefore crowd multiplication was also not possible then.
Why the match was significant
'Lagaan' is a story about the triumph of the human spirit. The story revolves around farmers who agree to a cricket match against the British in order to free themselves from taxes (lagaan). It was important for the villagers to see victory as the British decided to impose three times the tax (teen guna lagaan) if they fail to win the game.
And the same victory would also help the farmers get exemption from tax for three years. Aamir Khan who plays the role of Bhuvan is shown as a skilled marksman who helps the villagers realise their capabilities. Each character in the film is pre-defined and the climax scene of the film is also scripted by utilising their weak and strong points.
The songs in the film were all a hit. Songs like 'O re chori', 'Radha kaise na jale', 'Ghanan ghanan', 'Mitwa', and 'Chale Chalo' were stellar musical numbers. The moral of the story also lies in the beautiful lyrics in the song 'Chale chalo' which touched upon patriotism. “Toot gayi jo ungli utthi paanchon mili to ban gaye mutthi” in the song means 'all five fingers make a fist and unity lies in it'. It was this unity and effort of the entire cast and crew that made 'Lagaan' one of the best in Indian cinema.