Rebecca M. Brown - Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 78-80


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 this iconography in the song "Radha Kaise Na Jale" in which Bhuvan and Gauri literally take the roles of Krishna and Radha in the village celebratory dance. The camera captures the dance from above, emulating the traditional iconography of the circular rasalila. In a (slightly) more subtle reference, the moment when the two declare their love for one another ("O Rey Chhori") echoes the narrative iconography of Krishna as cowherd cavorting with his primary gopi, Radha, riding in the buffalo cart, and dancing together outside of the village.5 This musical number is also the only moment in the film in which we see Gauri in a somewhat "racy" context. Over the course of the song her garment shifts from covering her head and coyly obscuring her face to a midriff-bearing, cleavage-showing ensemble; her hair gradually frees itself from its braids, culminating in a suggestive shot in which her tousled head rises into the camera from below followed by Bhuvan's head and torso rising behind her. Certainly this references the rich sexuality of the Krishna-Radha relationship but comes nowhere near the seductive, explicit encounters we find in the Bhagavatapurana, the Sanskrit narrative of Krishna. Lagaan thus strikes the viewer as overly conservative: women in the village remain completely covered in very modest saris; Gauri's one exception to this in "O Rey Chhori" proves tame compared to other Bollywood love scenes. Lagaan thus appropriates the religious language of Krishna and Radha to the narrative but does so while simultaneously Victorianizing the Hinduism referred to here.

The combination of a unified Hindu identity and a vision of Hinduism as centering on particular interpretations of popular iconography undermines the overarching story of resistance, refiguring it with the message that only as a unified, Hindu-centered nation can India throw off the yoke of the oppressors. Lagaan's success around the world, including an Oscar nomination in 2002, speaks to its popularity and the universality of its themes of rising up against oppression, falling in love, and fighting for a good cause. These same worldwide audiences may be unaware of the political strength of Hindutva in contemporary India, which serves as the foundation for this film's articulation of resistance against the British. That this was the film presented as the example of Indian cinema by India speaks volumes for its political subtext: the India herein is Hindu.

University of Redlands


1. For a discussion of this phenomenon in the context of the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and the reconstruction of Hindu history, see [End Page 79] Gyanendra Pandey, "The Civilized and the Barbarian: The 'New' Politics of Late Twentieth Century India and the World," in Hindus and Others: The Question of Identity in India Today, Gyanendra Pandey, ed., (New Delhi: Viking, 1993), 1-23. See also the books of P.N. Oak, including The Taj Mahal is a Hindu Palace, (Bombay: Pearl Books, 1968) as an example of this kind of revisionist history as subtle as Captain Russell's smirk.

2. Ian Christopher Fletcher, "Teaching Radical History: Film and History," Radical History Review 83 (2002): 174 suggests that this film could form the basis for discussion of colonial, postcolonial and imperial issues, and it certainly could. The relative accuracy of its representation of subaltern struggles in colonial India is discussed by Nissim Mannathukkaren in his "Subalterns, Cricket and the 'Nation': The Silences of Lagaan," Economic and Political Weekly 36.49 (8 Dec. 2001), 4580-9. I contend that most audiences have taken the film at face value, as a Bollywood-ized representation of that historical period; more popular reviews of the film fail to acknowledge its contemporary historical context.

3. Bernard Cohn, "The Command of Language and the Language of Command," in his Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 16-56.

4. My thanks to Niyati Thakur whose paper "Film Songs and the Picturization of Identity in Lagaan" (unpublished, delivered at the 31st Conference on South Asia, October 2002) began to explore the Krishna imagery in the "O Rey Chhori" scene and started my thinking along these lines.

5. For translations of these Krishna stories see Cornelia Dimmitt and J.A.B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans., Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 118-31.

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