Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (review)
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Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 78-80

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Once Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)

On the surface, the Bollywood film Lagaan offers a story of resistance. Set in the traditional musical mode of films coming out of the prolific Mumbai (Bombay) studios, Lagaan tells/sings/dances the story of the resistance of Indian villagers against their British colonial oppressors. Smaller resistances within the village shore up this larger unfolding of tension, as the hero Bhuvan (played by Aamir Khan) defends the village untouchable, welcomes the token Muslim, Ismail (Raj Zutshi) and token Sikh, Ram Singh (Javed Khan), and stops the villagers from violently killing the turncoat spy for the British, Lakha (Yashpal Sharma). We watch as the villagers conquer the clear evil of British Captain Andrew [End Page 78] Russell (Paul Blackthorne), whose smirks send simultaneous chills and giggles down ones spine and whose capricious wielding of power irks even his superiors at colonial central command. However, this message of resistance rides on the back of other, more problematic assumptions regarding our understanding of the historical colonial relationship—and it does so in order to serve contemporary Indianpolitical realities. Just as architectural, archaeological, and textual history is often rewritten or ignored in order to support the notion of a Hindu India oppressed by Muslim or British outsiders,1 Lagaan presents a colonial past in which resistance to the colonizer "unifies" the villagers, but only under the banner of Hinduism. From the conservatism of the film's depiction of the village to its token inclusion of Muslims, Sikhs, and untouchables, Lagaan unwittingly reasserts the primacy of Hinduism in India, and does so through the two-pronged approach of recasting both Indian history and Hindu gods.

Some have suggested that Lagaan might serve as a way to begin a discussion of colonialism, or even nineteenth-century subaltern resistance to colonial power.2 The film's whitewashed-yet-accurate depiction of village life, Indian-style British cantonment headquarters and dusty cricket grounds suggest an historical precision that viewers may also extend to the relationships among the characters in the film. We are given the message that Gujarati villages of the late-nineteenth century had only one Muslim man (and his silent wife) rather than a larger community of Muslims, that those same villagers can be convinced within the span of one scene that untouchability and caste difference are wrong (never mind that caste itself has been argued to be a colonial construction3 and that it took Gandhi years to shift, and only partially, the place of the untouchable in India), and that despite all of these anachronistic socially progressive attitudes the lone Sikh is indeed stereotyped as a consummate warrior, fighting the British whether with "sword or bat." Each move of inclusion, tokenism, or stereotyping in the film results in a reification of the Hindu-Indian identity as the norm, both then and now. By bringing these outliers in, the film enables a reading of historical Indian resistance as unified under a Hindu banner, a banner that has material effects on today's minority populations in India, whether Muslim or Sikh. The unwitting irony of filming in Gujarat, site of the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, which left hundreds of thousands of Muslims as refugees, makes this conservatism more poignant.

This Hindutva (lit. Hinduness, describing the Hindu right's political movement) unity relies on a selective notion of what "Hindu" might mean, largely dependent upon late-nineteenth century Victorianizations of Hinduism, and often figured through selected iconography of Hindu gods. It has been remarked elsewhere that the main love story of Lagaan, between Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Bhuvan, echoes the stories and imagery surrounding the Krishna-Radha narratives as told in various puranas and illustrated in Indian painting.4 In the iconography of the rasalila dance, the gopis (maidens) dance in a circle (each with their own Krishna), while Krishna and Radha dance in the center as the ideal couple. Lagaan echoes...