Director Ashutosh Gowariker on ‘Lagaan’

Ashutosh Gowariker (right) with Paul Blackthorne, who played Andrew Russell, on the sets of Lagaan

A day before Lagaan turned 20, The Telegraph went down memory lane with director Ashutosh Gowariker on the film ‘that has stood the test of time’.

On the eve of Lagaan clocking two decades, what are the emotions like? Does it seem like yesterday or does it feel like a lifetime?

It actually feels like yesterday. I am thinking, ‘Where did the 20 years go?!’ The only way I can count these 20 years is in terms of the films I made in between. When I look back at Lagaan, I remember almost every scene, the way I shot it, what happened on the set that day, what the actor and the HoD (head of department) discussions were like…

I remember everything! (Laughs) I find that quite amazing because 20 years is actually a long time!

Is that the case for all your films or are the memories a lot more fresh for Lagaan?

Lagaan is definitely special. It had a lot of firsts… it was the first time we did a five-and-a-half-month long schedule on the trot, it was the first time we did sync sound, it was the first time we shot in Kutch, we converted a building into a hotel… there are so many firsts here. All the memories are special.

While you were making Lagaan, did you, at any point, feel that you were creating a film that would go down in history?

When we were scripting, we definitely felt that we were on to something special. The film is a strange concoction, it’s got multiple genres… it’s a period film, it’s about cricket, it’s a cross-cultural romance of sorts, it’s set in a village and its dialect is Awadhi…. So in the scripting process itself we knew that this is something special.

When we started filming, we worked hard on capturing the written word to the best of our ability. Our expectations from the film were very humble… that the audience likes it and gives it a thumbs-up… that’s all. Never did we think that we would be liked even after 20 years. New generations are now watching the film for the first time on OTT….

What is it about Lagaan, in your opinion, that’s made its popularity endure across generations?

I think its thematic value is something that appeals. The rise of the underdog or the oppressed rebelling against the oppressor or this whole idea of people from different backgrounds with a lot of differences, in terms of caste and so on, forgetting all of that and coming together and standing united. I think these themes keep the audience connected to Lagaan. You want them to win in the end.

And the film also happens to have the game of cricket! (Laughs) That’s an added bonus because cricket is this nation’s passion number one. But what about international audiences who are soccer-loving nations and who don’t know anything about cricket? Even they connect with Lagaan because of its thematic value.

The cricket match is something audiences discovered only when they went to watch the film. It’s a successful marketing ploy that has gone down in Bolly history. What was the idea behind that?

We felt that if that information came out first, it may trivialise the rest of the story. Till then, cricket was something that hadn’t worked cinematically. There were examples of three-four movies before Lagaan, with cricket as the focus, which had completely failed. Hence, we didn’t want that to become a feature of the film. We protected it, though we knew that once the first show was out, the word would be out, but at least by then, people would have decided whether they liked the film or not.

TEAM LAGAAN: (L-R) Aamir Khan, Javed Akhtar, Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman and Ashutosh Gowariker

Lagaan was a film made facing huge challenges. What was the biggest?

If we talk creatively, filming the match. It was the toughest part of the entire movie. That’s because the match is where everything — all that has been set up in the first half of the film — rests on. Our challenge was to ensure that the match was believable. We had to figure out how to shoot it, what the cinematography was going to be like, how the actors would play the actual game, how the emotional ups and downs and the drama within the match — including stitching in O paalanhaare in the middle — would play out. We took 40 days to just shoot the climax.

Initially, I had structured a two-innings match, like the way it is in Test cricket. But then I realised that two innings wouldn’t hold the audience’s attention. Research told us that in 1893, a Test match had two innings. The only way I could tweak it was by making the three wise British officials set the rules. They decided that it would be a one-inning-a-side match… and then no questions were asked after that! (Laughs)

You faced casting issues, no producer was willing to back Lagaan till Aamir Khan stepped in to produce it on debut. At any point, despite your confidence in the script, did you feel that the film may not get made?

I had that feeling almost every day! (Laughs) Especially after Aamir had rejected it. But I was not someone who was going to keep the script away and say, ‘Let me write something else’. I had already decided, ‘This is what I want to make my comeback with as a film-maker’. Somewhere, that resolve of sticking with it really paid off.

Did the overwhelming reception of the film catch you by surprise?

We weren’t overconfident that the audience would love the film… we were hoping for it, of course. When the climax happens, the sixer is hit and all of that… in our minds, we knew that we had achieved the script on screen. Now it was the question of whether the audience would like it, and to what extent. The initial appreciation brought in relief… we felt, ‘Okay, the film is a hit’. But that it will do so well, that it would cross over, it would go to the Oscars, it will win so many awards… and that even now you and I would be chatting about it, I never thought that would happen! (Laughs)

For us, Lagaan is a perfect film. Looking back, is there anything you would want to change or at least tweak?

No, no, nothing at all. It’s lovely the way it is. If I had to make Lagaan again today, I would do it the same way. (smiles).

You’ve made some equally noteworthy films after that. But is Lagaan the film that people still talk to you about the most?

Ah, yes! The generation that saw the film in the theatres still swear that they never had such an experience for any film, before or after. The interactivity of the audience with the film, especially in the climax, was so huge that people went back to theatres just to experience that again. This is the first cricket match in the history of cricket where the end is already known, but still you are tense, you want to experience the match and you keep saying, ‘We are going to win! We are going to win’!

You just said that if you had to make Lagaan today, you would make it exactly the same way. But isn’t a film like Lagaan a once-in-a-lifetime event?

Absolutely yes! It is. You cannot recreate it again and again. Blessed are those people and those teams who can do it over and over again. But I think for us, the coming together of so many creative minds, the actors, all of that, is special. We are still being liked after 20 years. After Lagaan, none of us have got a film that we can talk about that has stood the test of time in this way.

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