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by Louis Proyect
27 May 2002 21:09 UTC
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If you mix together Bollywood, Tsui Hark's fiercely anti-colonial 
"Once Upon a Time in China," Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and C.L.R. 
James's writings on cricket, you might end up with something like 
"Lagaan". After having opened in NYC's Film Forum last month and now 
available in home video, this Indian movie should not be missed by 
anybody who likes to see the underdog get the better of his 
oppressor, especially when the oppressor is a preening and sadistic 
British colonial officer.

"Lagaan" means tribute, as in the payment to a feudal lord of a 
portion of a serf's harvest. Set in 1893, "Lagaan" introduces us to 
villagers of Champener who are squeezed by the local Raj and the 
British garrison which squeezes him. When the commanding officer 
Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) tells the Raj (Kulbhushan 
Kharbanda) that the peasants will have to pay double lagaan in order 
to make up for the half lagaan paid the previous year, the Raj 
responds that would be impossible to collect since the province has 
been suffering from a drought and no end is in sight. A half lagaan 
was collected the previous year not because of generosity, but 
because the drought simply made it impossible to collect the full 
amount. The consequences would be famine.  Russell tells the Raj that 
he must collect or else. After all, he must feed, clothe and house 
his troops whose main activity seems to be playing cricket rather 
than doing battle.

This is the same type of parasitic colonial villain who figures 
heavily in Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" series. Indeed, 
the subtitle of "Lagaan" is "Once Upon a Time in India". The main 
difference between the two films is the method of struggle against 
the colonial masters. In Tsui Hark's films, it is the well-placed 
fist or kick. In "Lagaan", it is the cricket bat.

When the villagers learn about the double lagaan, they organize a 
delegation to the Raj, led by Bhuvan, their young charismatic leader 
who is played to perfection by Aamir Khan, the film's producer and 
guiding spirit. They arrive in the middle of a cricket game, which 
they watch with some bemusement while waiting for an audience with 
the Raj. When Bhuvan is overheard commenting that the game looks 
"silly and stupid", the outraged British captain challenges him to a 
high stakes match. If the villagers win, they will not have to pay 
lagaan for three years. If they lose, they will have to pay triple 

If the British can be likened to the grain stealing brigands in 
"Seven Samurai", then the peasant will be their own saviors rather 
than any hired sword-toting warrior. Like the head samurai in 
Kurosawa's film, Bhuvan must recruit eleven men, including him, from 
the village to do battle with the British on the cricket field. Since 
none, including him, have ever played cricket before, they must be 
selected on the basis of skills already achieved in everyday life. 
For example, one peasant who has a knack for rounding up his darting 
hens is groomed as a catcher. 

In one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in the film, Bhuvan 
persuades the rest of the team to accept an untouchable into their 
ranks. Because he is equipped with a shriveled and nearly useless 
hand, whose only use is putting a fierce spin on a cricket ball, he 
will be a perfect pitcher. How can they allow somebody from the lower 
caste on their team, they snort. Bhutan delivers an impassioned 
speech about the need to unite all Indians against their enemy and to 
eradicate the caste system. 

Since the cricket team is composed of a member of the lower caste, a 
Sikh, Muslims and Hindus who get along amicably, one can conclude 
that Aamir Khan is conveying his own vision of a transformed India. 
Indeed, when no producer would come forward to make "Lagaan", Khan 
decided to produce it himself. The screenwriter Ashutosh Gowarikar 
obviously had the same kind of emancipatory vision as Khan, since he 
chose the name Champaner for the province in "Lagaan." Gowarikar 
obviously was inspired by the similarly named Champaran, the village 
in Bihar where Mahatma Gandhi began his agitation in 1917 to protect 
the rights of peasants in indigo plantations.

"Lagaan" is a long film, over four hours in two parts with an 
intermission. It obeys all the conventions of Bollywood, with a 
romantic triangle between Bhuvan, a woman from the village who loves 
him, and an English woman who is sympathetic to their cause. She 
sneaks off to the village each day to teach them the fine points of 
cricket, under her brother's nose, who is the sadistic commanding 
officer and captain of the British cricket team. It also has numerous 
song-and-dance performances that appear at key moments of the film. 
They often have a delirious quality as is typical of such films, as 
when the villagers serenade and dance to the darkening clouds that 
they hope will finally bring much needed rain.

The final hour of the film is devoted to a cricket game, whose 
outcome I will not reveal!

I will only state that it is consistent with the vision put forward 
by C.L.R. James in the preface to "Beyond a Boundary":

"This book is neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography. It 
poses the question What do they know of cricket who only cricket 
know? To answer involves ideas as well as facts. The autobiographical 
framework shows the ideas more or less in the sequence that they 
developed in relation to the events, the facts and the personalities 
which prompted them. If the ideas originated in the West Indies it 
was only in England and in English life and history that I was able 
to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, 
Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions 
Caesar never knew."

Simply put, "Lagaan" is a film that celebrates the Calibans of India.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 05/27/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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