As Aamir Khan starrer ‘Lagaan’ completes 20 years today (June 15), we spoke to director Ashutosh Gowariker who in a freewheeling chat with DNA, reflected upon the time when the film was nominated for the Oscars but sadly did not win it. He also spoke about the casting challenges, Aamir’s performance and if he would be willing to give the film’s rights to a filmmaker if he/she wanted to remake ‘Lagaan’.
Here are some excerpts:
Q. It’s been 20 years, the film still holds a lot of relevance and it was one of the first few films that put India on a global map. How do you look at this journey today?
A. It’s been one of the most memorable journeys. When you make a movie, you wonder about the investment that you’ve made, you want those returns, you want to box office success, and you want the film to be appreciated. But for it to continue gaining an audience over the years, right up to this day, is something that we didn’t imagine. I feel very blessed that the audience remember the film and it is being introduced to the new generation. It’s, it’s a lovely feeling. It’s a triumph for the entire team, for coming together to create a memorable piece.
Q. If you take a walk down memory lane, how do you look back at the time when Lagaan was nominated for the Oscars but did not win it?
A. Indian audience was, of course, the target audience. But because of the nature of the script, and of the world, it had a lot of cross-cultural elements. Also, with Elizabeth coming in, and Captain Russell, how the two cultures were trying to meet, somewhere, I thought that maybe this can cross over.
At the Academy, the competition is very tough when you have 70 different countries sending their best films as a representation. And when we send our movies, we never think about the competition that we have. But the thing that really got us a nomination was the themes that Lagaan had — to meet the impossible, human spirit, the human condition, the oppressed, fighting against the oppressor. So all these things rang a bell for the Academy. We were very confident that we will make it, sad we didn’t because even now when I look back I think that we deserved to win because this is a special film. It had so multiple genres — it was a period drama, a sports drama, it was about cross-culture, it was also song and dance. But nevertheless, at least we had that nomination that put the Hindi mainstream cinema on a global map.
Q. Before you did Lagaan, you had worked with Aamir Khan in Baazi which did not do well at the box office. Did it take a lot of convincing to get him on board Lagaan?
A. Yes, I would say a lot convincing in terms of trying to convince him about the world, about the character, about the theme. One day, he very warmly told me that ‘Ashutosh you should come up with something which is more commercial than this’. And I felt that I need to go back and return after factoring out some more elements. So I went back and enhanced the script much more. There are many more thoughts that I had, which were later put into the script. And then I narrated the film to him again and he liked it. So, there was a full process of convincing him to get on board.
Q. What is the one thing you like in Aamir Khan’s portrayal of Bhuvan’s character and the one thing that you are not happy about?
A. There’s nothing that I don’t like because I think Aamir did it brilliantly. There are so many nuances in it. Bhuvan, on one level he is a revolutionary, he wants to rebel. When this tax cancellation concept comes to him he says yes, because he wants to somehow relate to that rebellious nature. Then his fun nature of trying to convince all the villagers, his romantic side with Gauri, his relationship with his mother, all these aspects were very different and they were very evenly spread out through the script. And all of them together were trying to create the character of Bhuvan. When I was writing the story, I knew Aamir had to play this so I was structuring the character according to him. For me, it’s one landmark performance by Aamir.
Q. Would you say Bhuvan was a feminist considering he was raised by a single mother who taught him to treat everyone equally? He also wasn’t apprehensive to learn from a woman, a woman of colour too in this case. Can you reflect on that?
A. In some way, I wanted women to have a contribution to the film. Because the game of cricket itself is such a male-centric game, I wanted women’s participation in it somehow. It could not have been just a male-dominated movie. And the only way that I could find contribution was from his mother, from Gauri and then Elizabeth, who tries to help Bhuvan with knowledge of the game. And from Gauri’s point of view, it was more of an inner strength that she was giving. For the mother, she’s telling him that you remind me of your father, your father was a rebel, and he probably died because of that. But at the same time, she is saying go and follow your heart, do what you want. So, I thought that these three women really empowered Bhuvan. So when you see the movie, you see a very male-dominated world, but the emotional existence of Bhuvan is these three women.
Q. 20 years later, now if a cricketer was to essay the role of Bhuvan, who would it be?
A. Bhuvan had this one quality. He doesn’t take any emotional, on the spur decisions. He will evaluate everything, he will absorb the situation and then takea decision. So any cricketer who today has that quality can be Bhuvan. Earlier I would say Sachin (Tendulkar) or (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni. Today, my best bet would be Virat (Kohli).
Q. Any particular character you had challenges casting?
A. Casting Bagha and Kachhra. In the case of Bagha, we needed an actor who would just be able to express brute strength just by his presence, in his voice and exactly opposite was Kachhra. We need someone very nice, absolutely innocent-looking, who you know, the person is very weak but that person has got one miracle in, in him, which is his bowling arm. These were two parts that were verycritical and a lot of auditions went on and different actors were tested before we arrived on Amin Haji and Aditya Lakhia.
Q. In a recent press interaction, Aamir Khan said, and I am guessing he spoke on your behalf too, that as makers both of you will be giving to give the rights of the films if someone wanted to remake it? Your thoughts?
A. If somebody else is going to make it, I think they should go ahead. We would love to give the rights. But with a remake, my usual my thought is, if they make a great film again, they’ll always be compared to us and it’ll be said the first was such a nice film, the remake had to be good’, or if they don’t make a good film, it’ll again be compared and said they ruined it. So, I feel that the risk is not on us. We would love to see how a new team comes and remakes Lagaan. We’ll be there in our tux at the premiere of the film.”