Lagaan | Teen Ink


June 21, 2008
By Anonymous

Lagaan illustrates the saddening but also inspiring struggle of the Indians against their British colonizers in the 1890’s. The film features a setting in the Champaner village of Gujarat, India. It is a town full of culture and indigenous Indian practices, but while their customs are apparent, so are those of the British. As the 1890’s were a time where many European powers began to industrialize, they also began to practice “neo imperialism”. In this sense, imperialistic empires set out to capture and dominate new lands for their own benefits. The British started out using India to their advantage for the industry of cotton textiles where they established their control over the country but allowed a puppet government to remain. From this, it’s clear that India was losing control of itself politically even though its system of government was technically still in place. However later, this loss of power over ones own country intensified when the British named their queen to be head of India, fully legitimizing their control over the subcontinent. Even though Indian officials were often educated with British ways and still allowed to maintain their positions in society, many of them were increasingly oppressed. As illustrated in this movie by the harsh role of Captain Russell, often times the British would impose excessive taxes on the people while additionally treating them poorly.
In fact, in this film, the cruel British officer Captain Russell threatens the king of India to eat meat or have his kingdom pay twice the tax. Evidently, the role of religion plays into the plotline perfectly in this instance. Because, by Hindu customs, the king was vegetarian, and he was unwilling to break the said guidelines of his religion, it shows the importance practices continued to hold in society even under British rule, where the king would rather back down from the threat than commit what is seen as taboo for Hindus. However, when he does not accept, the people of the village of Champaner become extremely distraught for the cost of a double tax is quite intimidating. When they protest though, Captain Russell challenges Bhuvan, an Indian man he had had a previous unpleasant encounter with while hunting, with a deal. He proceeds to offer the village the chance to cancel their taxes for the next two years if they can beat his men in a cricket match, a game endemic to England. However, if they lose, the village will have to pay triple the lagan.
At first, when Bhuvan accepts, his comrades are outraged, thinking him foolish for agreeing to such a challenge that at the time seems completely out of reach. However, as he works to inspire and persuade the people of his village to join him in the literal game against the British, but more symbolically, as a general fight against their imperialism, people come to see it as an opportunity to free themselves from the lagaan. As their land is experiencing great drought at the time, they need to relieve themselves of the burden of the tax more than anything. Bhuvan then begins to recruit teammates and with the help of a kind British woman, Elizabeth, who is Captain Russell’s sister, he teaches his village the game and prepares them for their fight against the white men. Though they struggle to build up their skills, in the end they put up a strong fight against the British. Although in a movie like this, the ending is more or less predictable, there was still a good twist. When the underdogs, or the people of Champaner come out on top after a suspenseful game, it is no surprise, because most movies, or at least ones like this, have a happy ending. However, at first, it appears the British have won, until the last second when the audience finds out Bhuvan and his crew have triumphed, making it a more interesting culmination to the film rather than outright letting the villagers win without any sort of fight or struggle.

Not only does the story of Lagaan depict the effects of imperialism during the late 1800’s in India, but also other aspects important to understanding their culture. For example, religion comes into huge significance. Throughout the movie, as the villagers of Champaner encounter any sort of struggle, they look to their gods for help. Many times the names of their Hindu deities are mentioned and they hold ceremonies or prayers to honor them. During the course of the three day cricket match for example, all of the women sing in prayer to the gods for their help, thus again evidencing the importance religion holds in their lives. Also, in a more social aspect of religion, at one point, Bhuvan discovers the talent of a pariah, or “untouchable” and wishes to have him join their team. At first, everyone objects to playing with a person of such low caste, shocked at the fact that Bhuvan even touched the man. However, later, he does come into acceptance in the eyes of the other men when he proves himself to be just as worthy as them and a great addition to their team. Thus, as the Hindu religion supports the caste system, the role of social inequality due to religion becomes apparent here. More so, it might suggest that with movements towards independence, such as this fictional one portrayed in Lagaan, the caste system may have begun to disintegrate and become more like how it is today with less rigid boundaries and people more united with greater social mobility.
Lagaan may also be an interesting choice of film because the cinematography is quite different than that of the ordinary American produced movies. Where there are some musicals in American movies, Lagaan seems to successfully combine all elements of dance, music, religion, and culture more so than films in the states do. It incorporates all of the music in a way that is relevant to the plotline but also emphasizes cultural practices. Also, as far as the relationship between Bhuvan and Gauri, a young Indian woman in the village who strives to win his love, it seems far less forward and perhaps less explicit than some in American movies. They do not come into exceedingly close contact or display outright shows of love, but rather profess it to each other through song, dance, and expression. Perhaps this has something to do with what is socially acceptable in India, however nevertheless it is an interesting comparison to note. Bright colors, dramatic performances, and differences in apparel and costume make Lagaan distinct from movies of American culture where they assist in emphasizing the traditions idiosyncratic to native India.
Lagaan not only accurately displays information about the 1800’s with Britain as a dominating colonial power of the world, but also succeeds in doing so in a way that is suspenseful and entertaining. This movie proves itself to be worth viewing in classrooms especially, because it engages its audience while also educating them. Particularly with the instances where the British treat the Indians so harshly, or at the end when the village of Champaner struggles greatly to beat their white opponents, the viewer experiences a sense of suspense that keeps them wanting to know what happens next. Also, despite whether or not the audience member realizes it they are also educated about what imperialism was like. They are able to see and understand the idea of an Indian puppet government, with Captain Russell threatening the king to eat meat, and the oppression of the natives where the British treat them like beings of far lesser nature and importance. Although some parts may seem a bit dramatic, this extra sense of emotion in the movie serves to emphasize the clashes in culture and the struggle of the Indians against the British. Therefore, for entertainment and educational purposes, Lagaan serves as the perfect tool to accomplish both.

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