Friday, June 17, 2011

Lagaan Week: Intellectually Engaging with Lagaan's Themes of Colonialism

So it's funny that I mentioned Lagaan a couple of times in the last post talking about Madrasapattinam because I'm now going to do a post about Lagaan itself! With several film reviews already in the works (notably 3 Idiots, Break Ke Baad and 36 China Town, which are all near finished) or backlogged and several films on the near queue, I take time out from all of them to join theBollywoodFan's LagaanWeek! Both because I love Lagaan and I'm eager to join in a theme.


Lagaan was my third Hindi film, watched at the recommendation of a friend from LiveJournal right after I declared my love for Bollywood based on Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Please pardon the length of this post. Lagaan is a massive film (almost four hours) and it has a lot of relevance to my literary studies, so I have an inclination to talk of it like a work of literature within the realm of British colonialism-Indian nationalism and postcolonial discourse. I actually started off with the idea of a normal post, but as I got writing, much more talk of Lagaan's engagement in themes of nationalism, colonialism and reverse colonialism (anything that bends colonialism in favor of the colonized) came out than was healthy. SO. I ended up with this post, which is more like an English essay. (I posted about Lagaan again following this post because I want to engage with Lagaan on an intellectual level, but I feel like just doing that ignores some of the basic things I enjoyed about Lagaan as film, which, as Aamir himself says, is always entertainment at its heart.) Please also pardon any glaring mistakes in this post as I'm working on memory of a film that I haven't watched in six months.

As I mentioned in the Madrasapattinam post, I have a strong attachment to period pieces and an intellectual interest in colonial British India (and subsequently postcolonialism). Lagaan is, perhaps above all other things, a story of Indian nationalism in rejection of British colonial control. In order to save their village, which is being taxed to the point of starvation, a group of men band together to fight against the odds and play a game they don't understand against their English overlords. It isn't necessarily nationalism in the strictest sense because it is limited mostly to one village — with some other characters, like the Sikh Deva, joining from elsewhere — but I consider it a representative microcosm of nationalism at the very least, as Indians come together across class boundaries (including Untouchables) in the united defense of their land.

Lagaan was my first serious brush with cricket. I'd traveled to Australia in 2005 (at the ripe old age of 13) and watched a couple of matches but never understood them. Lagaan, by walking through the Indians learning cricket, taught me to understand the basics of cricket. After Lagaan and Dil Bole Hadippa, I was brave enough to test my knowledge of cricket by jumping on the World Cup bandwagon and riding it all the way to an Indian victory. I watched fervently through the World Cup and then through the IPL tournament. I have Lagaan to thank for finally explaining things to me and launching an attachment to a sport not even played in my corner of the world. So. If you want to understand cricket — and even more, if you want to understand some of the attachment of Indians to cricket — Lagaan is a good place to start. (This amazing profile of Sachin Tendulkar, the God of Cricket, by a cricket-dumb American sports journalist is also a good place to go.)

Talking about cricket is also a good place to start with Lagaan. Coming into the film with a knowledge of cricket isn't necessary (it helps, of course, but isn't necessary), but if you don't like cricket, you may want to beware. There is much more to the film than cricket — in fact, cricket is just the vehicle of the film's greater colonial themes, as I'll prove in a moment — but the entire second half of this extremely lengthy film is a cricket match. So, even with the excitements that keep cropping up, expect to watch nearly two hours of cricket.

Lagaan also points to the dichotomy of cricket with reference to colonialism: It is both a rejection of and a lingering attachment to the British Raj. It offers both the chance to beat the colonizer at his own game and the chance to join the colonizer's game, playing by his rules. This is what I personally consider one of the most fascinating lingering effects of colonialism on India: the fervent, fanatical, almost religious attachment that Indians have to a game given to them by colonialism. (And, for the record, this is not a phenomenon limited to India, though India is perhaps the most blatant example; all countries where cricket is now played are former British colonies, from Australia to South Africa to the West Indies.) Lagaan perhaps seeks to point out a reason for this fanatical attachment that seems to defy logic: It began as a way to best the colonial. The men become so familiar and obsessed with the game in their intense desire to beat the British. (Sidenote: The colonial impact on the world of sports is also an intellectual fascination of mine; if possible, I'd like to study it in graduate school.)

The film also contains several Indian characters who at first play along with the British colonials for various reasons, most of whom are not faulted for their association with the British. All, however, ultimately find that their allegiance is to their countrymen, and the expression of their shifted loyalties all come out within the heat of the cricket match. Cricket, then, serves as a heated nationalistic phenomenon that has not only united the would-be cricketers themselves but also their wavering fellow Indians (note also that tons of people from neighboring villages affected by the lagaan also arrive to cheer on the cricketers). Three such characters fill this "wavering Indian" role: Lakha, who spies on the Indian team for the British because of his personal hatred for Bhuvan; Ram Singh, who acts as an aide and translator until he is struck at the match by Russell; and the provincial Raja, who throughout occupies a precarious position that straddles the two worlds. The only British-serving Indian who defects outside of the match is Arjan, a stablehand for the British who joins the cricketers after Russell, angry after a rebuking session by his higher-ups, strikes him. The primary purpose of his defection, however, differs: Arjan is meant to join the cricket team after making disparaging comments about the likelihood of its success; he is not representative of a British-cooperative Indian who needs to realize his loyalties but of a skeptic who needs to believe in Bhuvan's cause.

If themes of colonialism pervade and consume even the sports match in Lagaan, the film's love story is also able to evade the trappings of reverse colonial discourse.

Instead, a sort of reverse colonialism occurs on a very personal level: Bhuvan, the Indian, has conquered the heart of Elizabeth, the Englishwoman, forever marking her (the end credits tell us she never marries). It's also a rejection of white femininity, which is traditionally held in literature as the most desirable of all femininity. The impacts of such a tradition still echo in Indian society: Fair skin is considered beautiful and preferable, especially among women although men experience it as well (Indian society still bears the marks of a divide one Indian man once explained to us as "white Indians" and "black Indians"). Even Aamir himself, of rather exceptionally fair skin, bears out this legacy. But within the framework of the film, lightness and whiteness are rejected as Bhuvan instead chooses the homegrown Indian girl, Gauri, who is also dark by comparison.

Admittedly, I know painfully little about Lord Krishna compared to other Hindu gods (thanks to Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Children I think I know more than I ever wanted to about Lord Shiva) and next to nothing about the Radha-Krishna-Gopi story other than what was (confusingly) explained in the film. However, based on the framework that the film provides, I don't see Elizabeth being Bhuvan's Radha. Whatever gratitude he seems to feel toward her, his white sympathizer, there is never any indication (beyond Gauri's unfounded jealousy) that Bhuvan loves her. Instead, I think the religious story is added perhaps as an attempt to distance the Bhuvan-Elizabeth relationship from its actual basis in racialized reverse-colonial politics. It is an attempt to make sense of a relationship that is about colonialism without using colonialism; in other words, it's trying to disguise the fact that it is about race and colonialism by using religion as an alternate framework.

Like the argument of Elizabeth as Bhuvan's Radha, the character of Elizabeth sometimes rings hollow as well. She seems to be frustratingly oblivious to actually understanding Bhuvan, whom she believes herself in love with. The story begins with her helping the Indians learn cricket out of the goodness of her heart and her desire to be fair, but it becomes her rooting for the Indians because she thinks she's fallen in love with Bhuvan. To top it all off, I bring up the same skepticism I brought up about Kites: How does she love Bhuvan when she doesn't speak his language? Sure, she learns Hindi — too fast, might I add — but she spends little time with Bhuvan apart from teaching the Indians cricket. There is little we're allowed to learn about her character other than the fact that she's willing to help the Indians because of a pursuit for fairness and a fascination from afar. As soon as we get this information, we're confronted with her silly, unfounded crush on Bhuvan. And for all of her "appreciation" of the Indians, she's also painfully blind. For the time that she does spend with the Indians, how can she not notice Gauri's jealous defense of Bhuvan? (Note the rapt attention with which she watches Gauri and Bhuvan sing to one another in Radha Kaisee Na Jale, at about 2:20.)

Perhaps the level of naivete is intentional — the good-hearted-to-a-fault trope, or the colonizer who is too nice (and naive) to understand the huge negative impact of colonialism. To a degree, I think that personification is apt; Elizabeth represents that not all Britons knowingly created the mess of colonialism, some were just part of it by accident. But for a woman who seems quite aware of the magnitude what she is doing and quite capable of scheming to get away from her brother, considering Elizabeth as merely naive when it comes to noting Gauri and Bhuvan's relationship perhaps seems too simplistic. Mostly, I view her ignorance as the fact that for the racialized reverse colonial politics to work, the white woman must ignorantly fall in love with the Indian man free of her own will (equivalent with her common sense), much the way as the Indian had no choice in British conquest.

Speaking of colonialism embodied in white characters, one cannot skip over the film's villain, Elizabeth's brother, Captain Andrew Russell. Again, I go back to the review I just posted about Madrasapattinam because I feel that the two films speak to one another in several ways. Madrasapattinam contains a very similar villain to Russell, a British officer in India who is meant to embody the evil of British colonialism and racism. But where Madrasapattinam erects a lifeless straw-man to knock down, Lagaan creates a real character facing pressure from overhead to collect more taxes and increase a grip on the peasants — a pressure he in turn takes out on those beneath him. Russell also has a real family in Elizabeth, a sister who runs off to teach his enemies how to beat him in the cricket match that his career rides on. None of this detracts from Russell's evilness as a villain (he is, after all, driven more by his career than attachment to his sister), nor subsequently from the evilness of the colonialism that he represents. It instead merely provides depth. Irony for Russell and his singleminded colonialism comes at the film's end, when he is shipped off to Central Africa. There, of course, Russell will continue to participate in colonialism, but among peoples even darker-skinned and more violent (two of a colonial's worst nightmares) than the Indians.

Now after saying all of this, I don't know what more there is I can say. I would love to address the conclusion of the film, but I don't know how much there is to say. India wins. Britain loses. The significance of that is understandable even without the depth of things I've spent this entire essay-post discussing and fleshing out. Perhaps the one thing left to say is that, in my view, the hero of Bhuvan represents a man with the courage that India wishes it would have had to drive the British out before 1947. That's part of the reason it's a historical film.

If you made it all the way through this post, cookies to you! Thoughtful comments on this labor of love intellect are also more than welcome.


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  2. Ah! That quote! That's one I was trying to remember so I could add it in, but I couldn't for the life of me remember exactly how it went. I really need to buy myself a copy of the DVD next time I see it.

    Thanks for the link to that post! So many of those articles seem right up my alley. Have added them to my reading list.

    And to your PS: Yes, I do mean that in a good way; come on, you can't not think Lagaan is lengthy. It didn't affect my desire to watch it at all (I watched all 3:44 TWICE within a week when I got the DVD from the library), and the time is well-filled, but it gobbled up a lot of my time.

  3. I've been directed here from tBF, and I'd say it was worth my while. I'm interested in what you say about reverse-colonialism. Would you say that that is the explanation for the bit about Lagaan that bothers me: that Russell wouldn't have had the authority to cancel the taxes when the Indians won the game because he was only a Captain or something; and that the British wouldn't have honoured the wager anyway. There were far worse acts of treachery committed by the British than not playing fair. What do you think? Should I just have a more willing suspension of disbelief?

  4. Ah, that's an excellent point that I wish I would have remembered to address in this post. Yes, both of those are points that have bothered me about Lagaan's storyline too. I think you typically have to come into Hindi films with a sizable dose of suspension of disbelief, more than with most English films, because of the conditions under which they're produced. But yes, this is a circumstance where I think things go beyond that because these points clearly defy common sense and logic. In order for the reverse-colonial politics of the film's whole basis to work out, the Indians MUST have a level playing field (no pun intended) on which to beat the British, which the film then sets as the cricket match. There really is no feasible way for this to have happened in reality. Colonialism rarely if ever offers an opportunity for nonviolent rebellion by the colonial subjects, which is what this film is after. The reality is that the colonial power sets the rules and may make them up as it goes along (hence the treachery you speak of). In the film, Russell receives a rebuke for acting out of station by promising to cancel the tax, if you remember, so that is at least partially dealt with. But in order for the Indian victory to work, they must thoroughly humiliate the one Briton that they can reach, which is Russell, who they basically shame and humiliate into playing by the rules. (The supreme irony of this being that during the match, rules had to be bent for the Indians and their unorthodox playing styles, in effect making them the ones in control by rewriting rules.) Note also the extent to which they beat Russell in particular, since it is him that they really beat out in the last ball of the match and they steal the loyalty of his sister. So, in an overly long-winded and probably only half-sensible answer, yes, I think the reverse-colonial politics insist that Russell act out of his station so that the Indians can humiliate him even more and the British must be shamed into keeping their word because the Indian victory is only valid if the British promise is kept.

  5. Very Nice write up, made me see Lagaan in a different light but I still don't think I'd list it amongst my favourites but its worth watching at least once

  6. Thank you. :) I'm not sure if I count Lagaan in, say, my top 5 films, but it's definitely an intellectually provocative film. And, if you read my other post about Lagaan, you'll see I think there are other reasons to enjoy Lagaan other than as a mental workout in colonialism. :)

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