Golondaaj on Hoichoi Turns A Great Real Life Story into a Preposterous Movie, Film Companion

Director: Dhrubo Banerjee

Writers: Dhrubo Banerjee, Anirban Bhattacharya (dialogues)

Cast: Dev, Alex O’Nell, Srikanta Acharya, Anirban Bhattacharya, Ishaa Saha

Streaming on: Hoichoi

Late 1800s, Calcutta, and right at the heart of the city, Maidan, the storied playground of footballing legends. One man (Dev) vows to beat the British in their own game and forms a team. Of course with players from all strata of society irrespective of caste and creed, and therefore facing some internal opposition. It’s all going to culminate into one thrilling match. No trophies for guessing who wins. Golondaaj would appear to be a Bengali version of Lagaan, if you didn’t know about Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, that is. Most of it is historical fact and I won’t be surprised if Lagaan’s cricket fantasy was informed by the heroic footballing events of pre-independence Bengal – a barefooted Mohun Bagan beating East Surrey in the IFA Shield final in 1911, but even prior to that event, Adhikari’s Sovabazar club wining the Trades Cup in 1882. 

One of the mistakes director Dhrubo Banerjee makes is turn this already dramatic story even more Lagaan-like, unable to go all the way because of its debt to actual history, but also trying to find ways to dramatise and commercialise it. As a result you have a ridiculously over the top antagonist like Captain Russel (obviously a terrible version of it), but you don’t have the stakes of teen guna lagaan – instead of peasants surviving a draught year in a do-or-die situation, it’s just a team of Bengalis playing for pride, valid, for sure, but it doesn’t have the same effect. Nagendra is shown scouting for talent and finding it in the unlikeliest people – a kaamaar (blacksmith), a priest. But where Lagaan created a way to turn their indigenous artisanship or quirks into personal styles, letting it play in believable situations within its fantasy setup, Nagendra’s would-be team members just walk into their practising ground, or happen to pass by. (One of them, a ‘ranar’, a kind of postman in erstwhile Bengal who delivers mails on foot, running from faraway places, could’ve been one such character but you don’t really remember him after his character is introduced). 

Golondaaj’s persistent reminders of Lagaan – fresh in my memory thanks to a piece I wrote on its 20th anniversary and revisited the film earlier this year – doesn’t help its case. If Lagaan is a textbook example of how to turn a preposterous idea into a great movie, Golondaaj is a masterclass on how to turn a great real life story into a preposterous movie. The movie’s problems are deep-rooted. Scenes lack a basic believability. Actors sound fake. 

There is possibility in a culturally specific aspect in the story – the rise of a different strain of Bengali nationalism, one that didn’t take the intellectual route to register their protest against the British but a physical one. Nagendraprasad was a follower of a school of Nationalism propagated by Vivekananda, who aspired the Bengali youth to strive for a kind of marriage of physical athletic prowess and Hindu spiritualism. 

Dev is the perfect choice – his strength is his physicality and he has typified the gym-built Bengali hero more than anyone else – and anything that challenges stereotypes (the Bengali male being perceived as physically weak) is a welcome move. The actor is also famously incompetent when it comes to speaking his lines. In a movie that is also fairly expository – firing up teammates, giving it back to the British – it becomes a problem. At one point, Nagendra spells out ‘Eta amar maati, amar desh. Tomar khelae tomakei harabo.’ (This is my land, my country. I will beat you in your own game.) He says that to Major Jackson (Alex O’Nell), a British character who doesn’t even understand Bengali, so technically he is saying it for the audience’s benefit. This is spoon-feeding at its worst. 

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