6 Things We Learnt From Madness In The Desert, The Lagaan Documentary, Film Companion
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Released in cinemas on June 15th, 2001, Lagaan is 20 years old. The film’s making, which spanned over three years, has been captured in Satyajit Bhatkal’s National Award-winning documentary Madness in the Desert, which is available on Netflix. It depicts the six month-long shoot, the obstacles caused by unhelpful weather, illnesses and broken bones, the struggle to convince people to invest in the film, and even the impact of the 2002 earthquake on the filmmakers. Here are some things that we found interesting about the making of that seminal film when we watched the documentary:

Kutch locals built the sets and starred in the film

The film was filmed in Kutch, an area selected after an extensive search for land that looked both agricultural and dry. Since the area had a scant three hotels, and a unit three hundred strong needed to be housed, a local residential building named Sahajanand Towers was rented for the entire cast and crew to live in. Bhatkal said, “A film made in Kutch must belong to the Kutchis.” The set was built not by technicians from Mumbai but by local craftsmen and workers. A local contractor named Danabhai was employed, and Aamir Khan met him himself to explain what they were envisioning. The fictional village, Champaner, was built from scratch by the villagers, using indigenous techniques and no modern methods. All the film’s extras were locals as well. In the film’s climax, the crowd that watches the cricket match was made of 10,000 villagers from nearby. The most daunting shot was the victory at the end, when the crowd had to rush into the field and dance, as ADs and the unit yelled into mics, “Naacho! Naacho!

Auditions included cricket and lip-syncing to ‘The Sound Of Music’

6 Things We Learnt From Madness In The Desert, The Lagaan Documentary, Film Companion

Rachel Shelley, who played Elizabeth, had to also prove she could emote while singing, since this was a film in which she would have to participate in a song-and-dance number. Her audition/screen test featured her lip-syncing to The Sound of Music title song, exclaiming when it was over, “Now that was quite funny to do!” Director Ashutosh Gowariker wanted the English cricket team to be made up of actors who also played cricket, not cricketers who could act. The British casting director, Danielle Roffe, drew up a long list of such actors. And their audition? A cricket match!

The actors had to be taught how to lip-sync

6 Things We Learnt From Madness In The Desert, The Lagaan Documentary, Film Companion

Apart from Aamir, none of the other actors had performed a lip-sync song before. The first number to be shot was ‘Ghanan Ghanan’, the group song at the beginning of the film. But the actors were unable to combine choreography with lip-syncing at first. So Gowariker assembled them in the evening and had them sing the song loudly again and again, so that they could learn the words fluently and then focus fully on the dance.

AK Hangal continued shooting despite severe injuries

6 Things We Learnt From Madness In The Desert, The Lagaan Documentary, Film Companion

Eight-six-year-old AK Hangal, who played the village elder, slipped and fell in the bathroom about three weeks into the shoot. Gowariker suggested he go back to Mumbai, but Hangal, a veteran of the Hindi screen, wouldn’t hear of it. “If I went back, what would happen to the film? What would happen to the continuity?” he asked. He vowed to be there when he was needed, despite being in such pain that he would sometimes ask his doctor to kill him. And sure enough, when the time came for his scene, Hangal was carried in on a stretcher and put in his costume. He hobbled to his place in front of the camera and delivered his lines to the whole unit’s amazement. Later, he proudly declared, “The show must go on! Didn’t I say I would work? I’ll die with my boots on.” Hangal died aged ninety-eight in 2012.

The cricket match was excruciatingly hard to get right

The shooting of the climactic cricket match posed many problems. The Indian actors were unfamiliar with cricket – which was how Gowariker had wanted it when he cast them, so that they looked as raw as their characters, but it also meant that getting the right shots took frustratingly long. Then, one of the British actors, Ben Nealon, fell as he was running and had to have his arm in a sling for a while. A shot where a ball hits Aamir on his ear as he ducked took many, many tries. Gowariker himself fell sick and had to direct while laid out on a bed.

Two of the actors got married on set

6 Things We Learnt From Madness In The Desert, The Lagaan Documentary, Film Companion

Two of the British character actors, Jamie and Katkin, got married on set in Bhuj. The couple wanted a traditional Hindu ceremony, which the unit provided, using the Champaner temple. They had planned to travel across the country after the shoot and find a small temple to marry. But Aamir told them that if they wanted an Indian wedding, they also needed the baaraatis. So they got married during the shoot. Aamir and his then wife Reena Dutta (also executive producer on the film) stepped in to perform the kanyadaan in place of the bride’s parents.

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