It was the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. I had just stepped into my teens. Looking back, it seems as though everything in mainstream Bollywood that came before Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai was so naive—even if that’s not true. Childhood years are tricky business; nostalgia is worse. There were good films and bad films before Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, as there were after. There were great years, like 2006 (Rang De Basanti, Lage Raho Munnabhai). What’s extraordinary about these two classics is their timing, in our lives, in cricket, in Hindi cinema, in India. Lagaan was mirroring the rise of a new Indian cricket team. Dil Chahta Hai was reflecting the changing aspirations of a new India. Both starring Aamir Khan, the films had a kind of combined impact on Bollywood.
No one tells it better than Karan Johar, in his memoir “An Unsuitable Boy”, where he writes how watching Lagaan, and Dil Chahta Hai, landed joint blows to his confidence as a filmmaker. “There was a part of me that got a little afraid. I felt, suddenly in that year, the syntax of cinema had changed. And Aamir Khan had brought about that change.” In 2013, in an event to mark the centenary of Indian cinema, when he was asked to pick the most significant turning point in Hindi cinema, Johar, unsurprisingly, picked 2001. It was as if a bubble had been burst, a bubble in which a generation of moviegoers, filmmakers, and moviegoers who will be filmmakers, were growing up in a limited exposure, pre-internet India. If Dil Chahta Hai felt like something we didn’t know we needed, Lagaan showed that this is what Hindi film entertainment can be.
Compared to the status accorded to it today, Dil Chahta Hai had a relatively low key start. Sure, it had Khan and other stars. The songs were a hit. But no one expected it to be this cultural milestone. It was almost as if Farhan Akhtar was leading us to this whole other world of movie pleasure we’d never tasted when, two minutes into the film, Sid (Akshaye Khanna) calls up Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) late at night and summons them to his place. The grim prelude has prepared us to expect something serious, a bad news perhaps. But when the scene builds up to the moment when Sid, for no good reason, throws paint on Akash (Khan), Dil Chahta Hai had announced its anti-serious, anti-Bollywood mission statement: we were going to have fun.
This sense of fun gets into the filmmaking as well. The jump cuts that come into play when the three friends make a stop on the highway in their road trip to Goa — in the “Masti mein rahe dooba dooba hamesha sama…” segment of the title track — both condense time and emphasise the minutiae of traveling: they step out, do some stretching, exchange seats. Much later in the film after the friends split apart, when Sid visits Sameer, a drilling sound from a nearby construction site creeps into the room to remind us of Akash’s absence.
(Shakun) Batra is among a new generation of filmmakers whose influences are almost entirely Hollywood—and for whom, Dil Chahta Hai became that life changing movie. “I didn’t know movies could speak to me like that,” he says.
Dil Chahta Hai, along with Lagaan, are credited to have standardised the use of sync-sound in mainstream Hindi cinema. The most striking use of it comes in a scene at Akash’s place. Sid and Sameer are in the frame; Akash is in the kitchen to fetch some ice (for his black eye). When Akash talks from the kitchen you realise that how spatial the sound is, how it’s traveling from the left side of the screen in a way that’s accurately tuned to the layout of the room. You can hear the room.
Akhtar made Dil Chahta Hai almost as a knee-jerk reaction to the kind of films being made in Bollywood: the romantic melodrama (Hum Aapke Hai Kaun, DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), jingoistic action films (Border), both (Gadar). It was drawing from a certain tradition of American movies where much time is spent just hanging around with friends. At a time when the family was at the centre of Bollywood mainstream, Dil Chahta Hai was putting the personal over and above everything else. It showed the difference between your parent’s house and your room. The film is aware what it’s doing; Sid, while turning down a visit to an aunt’s place, spells it out to his mom “Maa, main waha bohut bore hota hoon.”
Filmmaker Shakun Batra (Ek Main Aur Ek Tu; Kapoor & Sons) was in his early 20s when he saw the film–4 years later, he was assisting Akhtar in Don. Batra is among a new generation of filmmakers whose influences are almost entirely Hollywood—and for whom, Dil Chahta Hai became that life changing movie. “For me, as a young viewer, films were purely for entertainment, but this film spoke to me more clearly about what I was feeling, the idea of being lost, unsure and it made me feel better about that. I didn’t know movies could speak to me like that,” he says. “We hadn’t heard those kind of quick-witted, sharp dialogue writing. We hadn’t heard those kind of repartees between people. We are so used to boy-teasing-girl kind of dialogue. The central conflict of Dil Chahta Hai was these three friends. The victories were smaller than usual.”
No victory is more larger-than-life than Champaner IX beating Captain Russel and his team of boorish British officers in Lagaan. It’s the greatest single screen experience to Dil Chahta Hai‘s proto multiplex movie. If Dil Chahta Hai is about the textures and details, Lagaan is about the grand design. It’s a celebration of formula, and a masterclass in how to build on it and create something new. What is Lagaan but a variation on a basic Hero versus Villain template? A village is under threat. A hero rises, and vanquishes the villain. I mean, it could be Sholay, or Naya Daur, or something as recent as Karnan. Or the Brazilian film Bacurau (whose director described the film as “basically Lagaan”). What Lagaan did, using the same formula, is marry nationalism and cricket. A Gandhian, non-violent style of resistance finds an outlet in a game we inherited from our colonial masters. Turning the gentleman’s game into a peasant’s revolution. Alternate history of India’s freedom struggle meets a sport we are really good at, Lagaan’s got one hell of a movie story and it’s told with maximum efficiency.
Look how visually it tells it. Everything in Lagaan is leading up to the cricket match that takes place after the interval. We see the cricket ground for the first time when the British play and Bhuvan and others wait in the sidelines. They have gone there to request Raja ji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to waive off the double tax they have been asked to pay. The game is incidental but as destiny would have it, the ball finds its way towards them. Bhura (whose experience with handling chicken makes him a natural fielder) gets the ball when a British officer beats him up for touching it.
The next time the villagers are back to the grounds on the same purpose, they are inside it and closer to the pitch, when Russel throws a challenge and Bhuvan accepts it. This transition shows their journey from spectator to participant, a visual pattern the film keeps reinforcing without calling attention to itself (as in when Ismail, who watches Bhuvan and others practice, shed his initial reluctance and join him). Similarly, the introduction scene of Kachra, who is from a lower caste, echoes back to the way the British officer had beaten up Bhura. Kachra’s arrival completes Champaner IX, which was looking for its one missing member. Only with his inclusion will the villagers be able to take on the British on their own ground, and beat them in their own game.
Filmmaker Satyanshu Singh calls Lagaan “the perfect screenplay” and sometimes teaches it to his students in screenwriting workshops. “Cinema of the 90s ended finally in the summer and monsoons of 2001, when Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai came out…” he reminisces. Like many others, he considers it “a watershed moment”. And like me, he is struck by their contrasts. Compared to Lagaan’s “classical” screenplay structure, he finds Dil Chahta Hai to be uneven and “tonally a little all over the place”, but also bold and unusual. “You have a group of protagonists, with different journeys and they all clash with each other… After a point you almost forget about the friends and you follow Aakash into a different film altogether: Shalini, Sidney, Shalini’s fiancé. You have a very sentimental sequence in the end where Shalini is getting married—I personally don’t like that segment. But I think it’s a tricky film to write. Even today, I would be scared to try something like that,” he says. Singh sees the character of Akash as a pivotal moment in the evolution of the mainstream Hindi film hero. “He is a psychologically complex character with some glaring flaws.”
The character of Bhuvan is central to Lagaan. He is the stuff of myths. He is courageous, empathetic and leads from the front. But is he also not a cinematic incarnation of Sachin Tendulkar? For a good part of the 90s, you believed that India has a chance, as long as Sachin was still batting. You prayed that he didn’t loose his wicket, you shut the TV when he got out. Bhuvan starts off with a four but has a close shave in the next delivery. (‘Careful, Bhuvan’, gestures Gauri from the crowd). When Bhuvan sees Champaner through with his last ball six, it’s as if our collective fantasy of India winning the World Cup is given a cinematic wish fulfilment.
Bhuvan is the archetypal hero, but he’s also a riff on the rise of a cricket icon in the form of Tendulkar (whose involvement in the film as a consultant only makes the connection strong). The neutrality of Tendulkar’s image suits him. Bhuvan is a bland character, but he is a great hero. Film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha sees a direct link between Lagaan and the 90s. He cites the cricket writer and podcaster Jarrod Kimber, who speaks of “India’s love for cricket as really a 90s phenomenon”. “According to him, the history before that was dominated by things like hockey. But things started changing post the 83 World Cup win,” he says. Rajadhyaksha also attributes it to the rise of new technology in cricket broadcasting that took off with the launch of Star Sports in ’91. “Lagaan is very much, in that sense, about the mediazation cricket. This idea of replay and slow motion and a lot of the editing language of the game comes from there,” he says.
“I think what Dil Chahta Hai did is that it was aspirational, but it’s also something that you could touch and smell, something that you could actually do in your own home,” says Ram Madhvani
Lagaan was still playing in the theatres when Dil Chahta Hai released on August 10. Imagine going from Bhuvan to Akash, from infallible hero to a complicated character. That we don’t have a problem accepting Khan in that role is not only testimony to his versatility, but also the goatee and the spike he dons in the film, which accentuates his devilish personality trait. The film was being expressive in a way mainstream Hindi cinema wasn’t used to. (Once the ‘Aamir Khan model’ of one-film-at-a-time began after 2001, Bollywood stars began experimenting with different looks for different films). But more than anything, Dil Chahta Hai gave Hindi mainstream films that came after it an aesthetic makeover, a difference most starkly illustrated in the difference between, say, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Kal Ho Na Ho. From that point, every Yash Raj and Dharma film, or a certain kind of urban multiplex movie (Jhankaar Beats, Pyaar K Side Effects) seemed to be borrowing from the Dil Chahta Hai stylebook.
Key to this is the film’s production design by Suzanne Caplan Merwanjee. Filmmaker Ram Madhvani (Neerja, Arya) who has worked with Merwanjee in advertising, agrees that Dil Chahta Hai changed the way Bollywood looked at interior designing. “Earlier, you saw the bungalow with the two steps, and people going around in night gowns. We loved the stories, but they seemed to be living in another world. I think what Dil Chahta Hai did is that it was aspirational, but it’s also something that you could touch and smell, something that you could actually do in your own home,” he says.
If the new Hindi films were borrowing from Dil Chahta Hai, where was Dil Chahta Hai borrowing from? Madhvani tries to answer it. “There’s a certain Indian eye to colour: like the bungalows in Dehradun, or how South India has its own aesthetic. I don’t think they were looking at what we were seeing around us,” he says. He remembers going to Singapore for a post-production and being introduced to a new kind of wall paint. “They used to use these mottled marble-y backgrounds in advertising. Paint like that was being used on walls abroad, but not us. It has now become common, but at that time Suzanne was the first who started using it,” he says.
Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai brought certain upgradations in industry practises, like single-schedule shoots and the First AD system, and therefore made filmmaking more streamlined. They are seen as co-pioneers of a new era of Hindi cinema, but it’s really Dil Chahta Hai that is what we call influential. It’s possible to trace new Hindi film trends like the ‘Ranbir Kapoor character type’ (the hero with a creative pursuit), themes of friendship and coming-of-age directly to Dil Chahta Hai — a perfect example of which you can see in Wake Up Sid, Ayan Mukerji’s love letter to the movie, in which the title character falls in love with an older woman.
If Dil Chahta Hai was looking forward into Hindi cinema, Lagaan was looking back. Gowariker’s film has its roots in the golden age of Hindi cinema, its iconography and its conventions. Like Lagaan, Do Bigha Zameen, too, begins with an image of the scorched earth and a voiceover telling us that it hasn’t rained for two years (“Do saal se barkha nahi hui hai, aur iss saal…”). Only, in Lagaan it is rendered in a dramatic style by Amitabh Bachchan, which has some of the punchy dialoguebaazi of masala cinema, aided by beautiful old-school writing (“Iss dogle khel ki badaulat, angrez mutthi buland hoti gayee…”). In Bimal Roy’s film, rains arrive soon after the film begins and the people of the village sing in unison to celebrate the harvest season (“Hariyala saawan dhol bajata aaya”). In Lagaan, they celebrate too early (“Ghanan Ghanan”)—when the rains do arrive, after the cricket match, it’s poetic irony. The first face we see in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India is that of the widowed mother, played by Nargis; so in Lagaan, where the camera glides toward Suhasini Mulay, dressed in a white sari.
The film’s message of non-violence finds an echo in the idea of an open-prison experiment in V. Shantaram’s Do Aankhein Barah Haath, released in the same year as Mother India, 10 years after India’s independence. In that film, Adinath, a jail warden, assembles a ragtag team of hardened criminals, who, he believes, will be reformed if they are given a chance. His senior is not so sure; he allows him to conduct his experiment on a risky, high-stakes win-or-bust condition: if the inmates relapse, Adinath will have to give up everything he has. The Dilip Kumar-Vyjayanthimala starrer Naya Daur also released in the same year. It begins with a quote by Gandhi and ends with a tonga race between Kumar’s character and the feudal villain. “Lagaan is the Hindi movie in its purest form,” says film critic Baradwaj Rangan, “You have the classic stuff. You have the widowed mother, the love triangle, you have the impossible task of a hero versus villain, the jealous lover, the references to our mythology. There are some dozen Indian tropes there.”
When Ashutosh Gowariker was going through a low phase while writing Lagaan, he took refuge in the old masters, revisiting classics from a time in Hindi cinema when the lines between commercial and parallel were a lot more blurred, when good cinema and great entertainment were not mutually exclusive and when Hindi films won international prizes. But Gowariker is also a fan of Manmohan Desai and Salim-Javed. What else can explain a moment like the cricket ball hitting the temple bell? Lagaan’s influences are strewn over film history, from Bhuvan Shome, to Gandhi, to Bandit Queen.
So if Lagaan is the purest form of the Hindi film, is Dil Chahta Hai the new type of Hindi film? Did the roadmap of mainstream Bollywood split into another direction after 2001? For all their commonalities, Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai couldn’t be more different, even antithetical, to each other. Which brings us back to where we began: the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. Lagaan didn’t follow the trend of 90s Bollywood; instead it picked on the biggest 90s trend. As for Dil Chahta Hai, it started a new one. Both showed that it was Bollywood that was out of sync with the times.