Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Lagaan and Rang de Basanti didn't make my list of favorites

This post is probably going to get me in trouble, but I thought I'd address a couple major absences from my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s list. Both Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001) and Rang de Basanti (Paint It Saffron, 2006) will make many people's best-of-the-decade lists, both films won a slew of awards and were India's official entries for Best Foreign-Language Film at the US Academy Awards. So why are they missing from my list of favorites?

The first thing to say is that I wasn't trying to make a list of the "best" films of the decade, but of my personal favorites--that is, films I'm drawn to see multiple times. Neither Lagaan nor Rang de Basanti falls into that category. The reasons that particular films speak to us and others of equal quality don't can be mysterious. Still, I'll try to explain why I left each film off my list.

Lagaan is the story of a group of Raj-era villagers who, during a devastating drought, face having to pay a ruinous tribute to the British. Being a sporting type, though, the cartoonishly evil captain of the local British regiment offers to forgive the tax for three years if the villagers can beat his crack cricket team. The villagers have never played the game, don't know the rules and have no equipment, but having no choice they accept the challenge. Led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and aided by the British officer's sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the ragtag villagers must overcome their caste prejudices and romantic rivalries to unite and face the British in the Big Game.

Which takes up the entire second half of the movie. And that's where the problems arise for me, because Big Game movies are suspenseless. We know the underdogs face almost impossible odds, we know the dominant team will build up a near-insurmountable lead, and we know that at the last possible moment--spoiler alert!--the underdogs will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The other suspenseless question at stake in Lagaan is whether the hunky Bhuvan will come to reciprocate Elizabeth's growing love or remain true to his village sweetheart Gauri (Gracy Singh).

--End of spoiler--

Obviously, an uncertainty about the outcome isn't the only reason to watch a narrative. We know, for example, how a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie will turn out even before the opening credits roll, and theater troupes haven't stopped putting on productions of Hamlet just because the audience already knows the ending. But in the case of Lagaan, the rewards of the performances (of its Indian cast, at least) and of Ashutosh Gowariker's direction aren't enough to counterbalance the long, slow unfolding of the inevitable that is its second half. For me.

Rang de Basanti actually has a somewhat similar narrative structure--a disparate group of Indian men comes together and, with the aid of a young British woman, overcomes their differences in the service of a larger goal. In this case the group is made up of pleasure-seeking, apolitical young men who agree take part in the British woman's film about the Indian independence movement. In the process, they learn about the courageous and non-sectarian freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. The men's awakening political consciences then inform their plan to expose and avenge the government corruption that has resulted in the death of a friend who was an Indian Air Force pilot.

Like the earlier freedom fighters, the modern-day group turns to violence. Unlike the freedom fighters, though, the modern-day group is not living under the military occupation of a foreign power that has imposed press censorship, arrest without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, secret tribunals, and which has massacred a peaceful and unarmed crowd of men, women and children gathered to celebrate a religious festival. Instead, the modern group lives in a flawed and corrupt but still functioning democracy with a relatively free press.

So when they decide--spoiler alert!--to assassinate the government minister and the industrialist who are responsible for their friend's death, it seems more a failure of imagination than an act of revolutionary justice. And when the minister becomes hailed as a martyr to terrorism, their strategy backfires in a big way. So their next step is an armed takeover of the All-India Radio station, from which they broadcast details of the cozily corrupt relationship between government and business; then they all die in a hail of bullets as the station is stormed by security forces.

--End of spoiler--

But what a waste. Again, their actions seem more motivated by a martyr complex than by a realistic assessment of what would be needed to effect change in their society. Do they consider becoming investigative journalists, exposing misdeeds and directing press campaigns against the incompetent, venal and corrupt? Do they join or create organizations dedicated to bettering the lives of the victimized and powerless? Do they pledge themselves to the Sisyphean task of making a sustained difference? No--working for change in incremental ways is brutally hard and largely unacknowledged work. I felt that Rang de Basanti, in its glamorization of violence, was actually expressing a profound despair about the possibility of real, long-term change in Indian society (and in modern global capitalism in general). That despair may indeed be well-founded, but I felt that the characters--largely children of privilege themselves--hadn't yet earned it.

So that's why neither film is one I'm eager to see again, and why neither made it onto my list of favorites for the past decade. Alternative perspectives are welcome.


  1. Before I had 'discovered' Bollywood, I think Rang de Basanti was actually one of the first Hindi films I ever saw - that, and Water (I used to review foreign films for a local student newspaper). Loved Water, HATED RDB, to the point I switched it off about halfway through, and never knew how it ended until your spoiler. I've always meant to go back to it, having seen a few more Hindi films now, and see if that context changes anything or if I still really hate it (I just found it really slow and boring!).

  2. Ness, it's good to know that I'm not the only one unmoved by RDB. There are those who appreciate it, though; you might want to take a look at Philip Lutgendorf's essay before deciding whether you want to revisit it.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Add me to the list of people who do not appreciate RDB. Love how you've listed all the things about the film that also troubled me. Plus, I resented Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra's attempt to equate these silly young men with Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. The latter were extremist freedom fighters, yes, but they did not take up violence in a moment of petulance or out of a spirit of revenge!

    I must admit to liking Lagaan a lot, though. Guess I am a sucker for David vs Goliath romances, and this one is so much more than a mere sports movie (it draws a lot from Victory - another sports+patriotism film). By bringing in the evil British vs patriotic Indians (uniting against a common enemy), I guess it pushes all the right buttons for an Indian! And I loved the part where Bhuvan makes fun of cricket, when he first sees the Englishmen playing. The only thing that I felt did not belong in the story was Elizabeth falling for Bhuvan. It was as if Bhuvan's "hero"-ness had to be re-inforced - like it wasnt enough to have him save the villagers (against their inclinations), ALL the women had to be in love with him, too!

  4. Oy! This post really tempts me to play devils advocate =)

    I don't recall there being a Hindi film with 'the big game' as the catalyst for its second half. India at large wasn't at all used to that big game in team sports on film, and Lagaan was probably the first that did this. Cricket is India's unifying religion, so it's not surprising that when done this well (Aamir's 1990 film Awwal Number, also based around cricket, but in a different way, deservedly flopped by a lot), people fell so in love with it to where it's the best-selling DVD of all-time. Do you enjoy cricket? I would totally understand if you didn't like this if you don't like cricket at all, although I don't see this as primarily a sports film.

    As for RDB...the alternate view, to which I subscribe, is that the climax is not at all a waste, because through the actions of DJ and the gang, the film shows that it's extremely dangerous to be impulsive, as is acknowledged by these guys in the film over the airwaves. (Everyone agrees their actions deserved punishment. No glorification there. Sure, the film garners sympathy for them -- their intentions weren't the issue, it was what they did about satisfying them that was.)

    It also illustrates that when a rational approach is sought to solving the bigger problem of corruption at all levels of society, the only way that promises a fairly high likelihood of success in the long-term is the way the film suggests *after* the group members die at the radio station, i.e., when you have members of the student community all across India (they were speaking in different dialects, and again, we see those lines delivered by target audience: ages 18-25, Indians growing up in India) acknowledging the need to aim to do good for the country regardless of their profession, in all spheres of the greater society.

    So I think without those last three minutes or so of the film, it would have been the inverse, incomplete, and ineffective. My view is those three minutes make a case for the film advocating for Gandhian practice. I might've even discussed this with a member of the Gandhi family. ;)

    What I appreciate most about RDB is that it directs a valid question to the youth of the country: So what do you plan to do to make the country better? It's served as inspiration for countless, there's data to suggest that, and I think the subtlety of getting the message across, and getting people to think about this, although a flaw of the film (as the film says, it's often tempting and easy to jump to conclusions on impulse!), can be overlooked given the change it's brought about in people of a certain age group. Now, how fruitful has this psyche been? I don't think we'll know until at least a decade down the road.

    Thanks for opening up these little discussion. I find the one on RDB far more interesting and relevant in the 21st century, although I like Lagaan more.


  5. Bollyviewer, I agree with you that the parallel that RDB attempts to draw between the freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad and the modern-day post-collegiates that are the focus of the film is extremely strained. You're right to point out that the actions of the freedom fighters were informed by detailed political philosophies that they had developed through reading, debate, and life experience; the characters in RDB seem to be unreflectively reacting to events.

    As for Lagaan, I realize that as a North American viewer, I'm going to miss many dimensions of the film. Lots of people love it, and challenging that appreciation is the last thing I want to do. I'm merely saying why Lagaan didn't make my list of favorites. And I agree with you--the English characters are the least convincing aspect of the film (although, I have to admit that the scene between Elizabeth and her brother after he's learned of her aid to the villagers is pretty great).

    Thanks for your comment!

  6. BollywoodFan, of course I realize that as the Bollyblogosphere's most ardent and articulate Aamir Khan fan you don't share my point of view on either movie. And of course your perspective is equally valid, and more eloquently argued.

    I will say that, while Lagaan may have been innovative for Indian viewers, for North American viewers the Big Game sports film has a very long history, from The Freshman (1925) to Knute Rockne, All American (1940) to Damn Yankees! (1958) to Rocky (1976) to Breaking Away (1979) to The Natural (1984) to Hoosiers (1986) to Bend It Like Beckham (2002) to Miracle (2004) and many, many more. It's not that I don't like cricket; it's that the tropes of the Big Game sports film are so well-worn.

    Embedded as I am in North American culture, I found many elements of Lagaan to be formulaic. I fully understand that Indian viewers may not have the same history of sports films to compare it to; but again, my post was an explanation of why the film is not one of my personal favorites.

    As for RDB and the idea that its last three minutes somehow provide a balance to its preceding three hours, and that this section indicates that the film is really advocating Gandhian nonviolence...I respectfully disagree. I think that the martyrdom of the group at the radio station is romanticized, with swelling music, former enemies clasping hands under a hail of bullets, weeping friends outside, etc.

    I fervently hope that you're right in your assessment of the impact of the film on young people in India. (And it's clearly not only Indian society that is flawed, corrupt, and has failed to fulfill its promise to the vast majority of its people.) But again, my post was not about the potential impact of the film in India, but about my personal response.

    I do thank you for posting your own perspective on these films, though, and I would urge interested readers to check out theBollywoodFan's posts on Lagaan and Rang de Basanti for a passionate and thoughtful advocacy of both films.

  7. I really liked both Lagaan and RDB and if i were to make a list like you, these two films would be part of that list although I do appreciate your pov about these films.

    I think North American audiences may not find cricket based movies so appealing - i guess the same applies to us in the rest of the world wrt Baseball. Lagaan of course is much more than cricket per se. Without going into details, I would say that I like the many dimensions of Lagaan apart from the excellent performances and the music. I agree with Bollyviewer about the love angle bet Bhuvan and Elizabeth which quite did not fit in but that is a minor squabble.

    I personally think RDB was the best 2006 movie.

  8. Filmbuff, I can't speak for North American audiences as a whole, but for me the lengthy cricket sequences in Lagaan were actually interesting because they helped me to understand how the game is played.

    Unfortunately, though, as you point out, it's not really a film about cricket. Since that's the case, the 90 minutes of screentime that are devoted to the match seemed excessive (and as I wrote above, to those familiar with sports films the outcome is a foregone conclusion).

    Thanks, though, for your perspective!

  9. I don't like RDB either, although I love Lagaan.

    I agree that some judicious editing of the "Big Game" would have improved it, but I was still enthralled (and like you, experienced some real "Aha!" moments as to the rules of the game).

    But the overall acting, ambience and SONGS just make Lagaan a film I can watch over and over (maybe with a little ff action here and there, but that's what that button is for) :)

  10. Memsaab, I'm very glad that you pointed out how good A. R. Rahman's songs are--it's something that I inexplicably neglected to mention in my post. The Lagaan soundtrack often winds up on lists of the best Bollywood soundtracks of all time; for example, it's #34 on Planet Bollywood's 100 Greatest Bollywood Soundtracks Ever, and #6 on the BBC Asian Network's Top 40 Soundtracks of All Time.

    Alas, even the excellent songs don't make me feel impelled to watch the entire film again, which was one of the criteria for making it onto my list of favorites.

    Thanks for your comment!