Everyone remembers the first time they saw Lagaan. That's probably because its makers achieved two things that are near impossible today. The first is the element of surprise – walking into a movie having no clue what it's about. While people within the industry knew Aamir Khan was working on a cricket film, for the lay viewer, this came as a major surprise, shock even. Today, right from the time actors sign a film to its completion, we're bombarded with regular updates from the set and looks of characters. And then there's the trailer which ends up giving everything away.
The second and perhaps most significant reason why everyone has a Lagaan story is that it turned single-screen theatres across the country into cricket stadiums. There was cheering, hooting, clapping, tear-shedding – the works. It was an electric atmosphere that we cherish more now as we grow accustomed to watching films alone on our phones or laptops.
We ask critics, filmmakers and writers about their memories of seeing Lagaan for the first time.
I saw Lagaan at the now-defunct Adlabs preview theatre in Film City (Mumbai), a few days before its release. I remember being emotionally walloped by the film. I don't have any memory of this exchange but a few years later, Karan Johar told me that he met me as I was leaving the theatre. He had come for the next show. At the time, there were so many apprehensions about the film. It was about cricket, the length was daunting, and it had Aamir Khan in a dhoti. Karan also had a release that year and he said that he was secretly feeling that he was about to watch a long, boring film, which didn't adhere to any of the norms of mainstream cinema. He said he was standing outside the theatre when I walked out looking stunned. So he said, 'that bad huh?' And apparently, I said, 'no actually, I don't think I've seen anything as good as this in a really long time.' He said that I didn't say anything else and just walked away as though I was in a trance. That's the impact the film had on me.
I was in Baroda when the film released. In Gujarat, we had a magazine called Chitralekha, and a few months before Lagaan released, one of the reporters had mentioned that Aamir Khan has come with a huge team to Kutch and they were seen playing cricket. But by the time the film released, I had forgotten about this. When it released, I had to see it on day one. I remember standing in line for my ticket. I could faintly hear what was happening in the theatre – everyone was cheering and screaming loudly. I called my friends and said I think I heard commentary and it's a cricket film. I ended up watching Lagaan five times in the theatre. It's a great underdog story. Every time Kachra took a hat-trick, I went mad, even though I knew it was coming. After a point, I was more interested in observing the crowd and seeing their reaction. I made up my mind that this was something I wanted to be a part of. That seed of filmmaking was planted by Lagaan.
There are some things in the movie that they pull off so convincingly. Today, if I go to a producer and say there's a bit where the team is losing the match and the entire village lands up in the mandir to sing 'O Paalanhaare,' he would throw me out. You need so much conviction to do this. Also, the film has such a great ensemble. My love for character actors comes from this movie.
When I was watching the documentary on Lagaan, I saw that when Ashu sir (Ashutosh Gowariker) was pitching the script to Aamir, he had a head full of hair, and by the time they went to the Oscars, he was partly bald. I realised this is what filmmaking is about – this is what happens when you give everything to making a movie.
I remember no one knowing anything about the film. The only promo that came out was the flipping off the coin and the villagers. I thought it looked like one of those documentaries you see on Doordarshan. I went to see Lagaan with my family. It was the third show of the day and the front row was the repeat audience of the first show. They were already screaming, so I kept wondering what was going on. It was the first time I saw not just the front rows but also the entire balcony section standing on the seats and watching a film. Because of them, the people sitting on the rows behind couldn't see, so they too stood up. The energy was so contagious that by the time the character of Lakha takes that catch, all the rows were standing and watching. I walked out of the theatre and said 'Papa, mujhe actor banna hai.' I thought if this is what films can do to an audience, I want to be a part of it. I'm not kidding, but Lagaan was my email password for years together. I used to dance to 'Mitwa' in school functions. Aamir Khan has a beautiful monologue when the whole village turns against him for including Kachra in the team. The lines touched me so much. I did that monologue in all school and college plays.
Aditya Chopra had this tradition of going for movies to Chandan cinema (in Mumbai) with a group of 20 people to watch all movies. We had booked out the entire the last row. It was a party. It was a Friday night, last show. I remember when Ameen Haji, who plays the mute, hits the ball and it goes and hits the mandir ki ghanti, all of us got up in excitement. It's such a Manmohan Desai moment, but it worked so well.
Within the industry, we knew that the film was about cricket and that it was really long. Aamir and Ashu knew what they were going to do with this film. The idea was always to take it far and wide. There's a scene in the film when Elizabeth's character explains to the villagers what cricket is. It's such a clever scene because you're explaining to the rest of the world what the game is through that scene. For all of us within the industry, Lagaan changed the way films were being produced afterwards. Going forward, all films had to be done in a particular way – an actor doing one film at a time, the direction team being highly empowered and putting everything on paper, and the whole unit staying in Bhuj in a particular way for months on end was a first. The way Lagaan was made changed how we work today.
Hindi movies are released in big theatre chains across the US today, but it was different in 2001. You had to drive long ways to get to small, ramshackle theatres whose floors were strewn with samosa-wrapping flakes. No one cared, of course – because once inside, it was like being in India, rooting for the Indians to win. I've rarely watched a film that roused such energies in the final hour. Now I am back in India, but watching Lagaan in some small suburb of Chicago is one of the sure-shot examples that leaps to mind whenever anyone says, "It's really different watching a movie in a theatre, with crowds." It really was.