Bollywood: beyond the boundary

Jessica Hines
29 August 2001

Western films these days are littered with deconstructed men. Not so Lagaan. The vital difference today between a Hollywood star vehicle and a Bollywood spectacular is that Bollywood heroes are real men. No angst, no baggage (apart from the odd mother fixation), just good old-fashioned goal-oriented testosterone.

Lagaan hit the cinema screens this year like a classic Bollywood blockbuster. It certainly has the self-confidence, the audacity, the length – a whopping three hours and forty minutes – and the standard six songs and dance routines along with all the masala mix of pathos, love and heroic deeds.

But there is a difference that explains why it is the first genuine, all-in Bollywood movie to make the crossover to the mainstream British audience, and to appeal further outside the Indian subcontinent where it has been a tremendous hit.

Set at the height of the Victorian Raj, it is the story of a village’s fight to have its taxes reduced, which it achieves by taking up the challenge, intended as a trap, set by a local British official. The backward, ignorant villagers have to win a game of cricket against the best of the local whites. The lagaan – the tax on their drought-stricken harvests – will be tripled if they lose. But if they win, it will be lifted altogether.

The struggle becomes a metaphor for Indian independence. The villagers rage over how to respond to imperial power and whether they have the strength and skill to win. The team itself is created from a cross-caste, pan-religious alliance (in which the disabled untouchable with a withered arm becomes a spin bowler). The British include the cruel, the-firm-but-just, and the pro-Indian, as the vindictive officer’s sister falls in love with the native hero and helps teach his team the game.

The characterisation of both villagers and Brits is skilfully done with an untroubled exuberance that rises above the stereotyping. The film becomes a celebration of a good creation, the hard-fought but benign transition to India’s replacement of British supremacy. From the local Hindu prince to the double-agent who repents, all India celebrates as one. There is no partition or lasting injustice, only the dignified exit of the British forces.

The appeal is contemporary. If Indians pull together without regard to confessional loyalties and dedicate themselves to the mastery of a secular game, they can win. Cricket, a bizarre form of sport, is turned into a symbol of the modernising process – it could only happen in a musical.

Lagaan has received rave reviews. But few realise exactly how remarkable the film actually is and that it is starting to change the way movies are made in India, one of the world’s most prolific industries.

Modernising an industry

Lagaan’s hero and producer, the very beautiful Aamir Khan, is a Hindi film star with a difference. His vision does not end in the mirror a few inches in front of his face. He sees what can only be described as the bigger picture. However, Aamir Khan’s bigger picture uses a similar sized canvas to Napoleon’s: he wants to re-order the world.

Lagaan’s success may make it the Indian equivalent of Star Wars, but in Khan’s grand scheme of things it is only the beginning. He wants to change the way that Bollywood works and challenge the perception abroad that it is a low-tech film industry which only produces cheap films. The goal: to shift the location of international film production to Bombay, while making great popular films in the vibrant, life-affirming Bollywood format.

In a contribution to the openDemocracy media debate, Maruf Khwaja has complained about the perverse influence of Bollywood fantasies bombarding cultures in the Gulf. Now Khan wants to raise their quality, and extend their influence even further.

Lagaan is more than just a film about “modernization”. It has begun to apply the process itself to the way that films are made in Bombay. The attempt is long overdue. Just how huge an effort is needed, and the scale of what Khan is attempting, can only be appreciated when you know the extent to which Bombay film production is held in a stranglehold by outmoded production techniques.

Until the 1950s, Indian film production was dominated by the studios. They were run as a kind of mix between Yasnaya Polyana, MGM and a socialist workers’ utopia. They had strict work schedules, and all the employees were treated as a huge extended family. They had schools, libraries, canteens and a fair scale of payment. This exemplary way of making films came to an abrupt end when gangsters and smugglers worked out that they could launder their money by making films about gangsters and smugglers. This realisation was so staggeringly brilliant and simple that it has endured until today. The accompanying influx of money meant that so-called independent producers could lure away the big stars by paying far more than the studios could afford.

The sacred cash cow

How much black market money there was and is in the industry will never be known. The grey and black markets are important parts of the Indian economy as a whole. A state-crime nexus has grown considerably over the last thirty years. The film world’s connection to the underground has always been glamourised – at least it was until recently, when the gangland bosses started bumping off people who didn’t do what they want.

Films are a deliciously easy way of laundering money. So many things can be paid for in cash, from catering to the stars’ fees. This has led to absurd stories of actors who don’t know what to do with all the extra money. They were unable to deposit it in a bank as they ran out of consumer durables to acquire. Since the 1960s, there has been a proliferation of false ceilings built in the bungalows of the film suburb of Juhu; regular stories of the tax man raiding film stars’ houses and finding wads of 500 rupee notes stashed in statues of Bombay’s favourite god, Ganesha. Not a dignified state of affairs at all.

In this cash economy, no one uses contracts, so films never have completion insurance, which means that they can’t get funding from banks. Producers are thus dependent on independent financiers who charge exorbitant rates of interest (often up to 30 per cent), and the source of their funds in turn is often hazy.

Spending money like water

Into this chaotic if highly creative industry Aamir Khan, a self-confessed control freak, is attempting to instill a little bit of order. He claims that he didn’t set out to do things differently with Lagaan, but it was the first time he had produced a film and it seemed the only way that made sense. Prior to Lagaan he was just one of the actors and could do no more than advise on how films should be made. Now that he is calling the shots he has been able to insist on a clear pre-production period, starting with an almost unheard of commodity in Indian film, a finished script.

All the personnel were contracted. The funding came from a recognized financier. Then they shot the film in sync sound in one schedule. Until Lagaan Bollywood films have been dubbed, with shooting taking place over multiple schedules, during which time pre-production, production and post-production are all happening at once. Khan says about the method he adopted, “I am glad that it worked. In this industry it is only when things work that people follow it. If it hadn’t, all that I had attempted would have been negated”.

He thinks that the industry as a whole will welcome his successful experiment. Since the release of Lagaan, he has been receiving phone calls from senior members of the film industry asking him how he did it. How, they want to know, did you do sync sound? How did you manage to get it all done in one schedule? In an industry where film-makers work from instinct to a very high degree, the success of pre-planning was a revelation. Filmmakers often write the scene on the day that they film it, feeling their way through the story. Khan says: “This is not very economical but if you have the financial luxury then good for you! There is a lot of time wasted with this system of shooting films. A lot of time spent playing cricket and cracking jokes which is good fun. It’s a very grand way of making films. But for a person like myself who is not only a control freak but also a very responsible person it makes me very nervous. I worry about spending money like water.”

But Aamir recognises the need to let creativity take the lead when it must. The budget for Lagaan was originally set at just over $3 million. Its costs rose to $5.5 million (incredibly low by US standards) and shooting went a month over schedule. He says that this was a creative call that he had to make but one that was only possible because he didn’t have a corporate body sitting on his head. “To realise the film’s full potential I had to allow that we had made a mistake in our initial estimates. Saraswati (the goddess of art and learning) must always be allowed to come before Laxshmi (the goddess of wealth).”

Hopefully his example with Lagaan will make it easier for other people to make films in a different way. While he doesn’t feel that Lagaan marks a sea change in the film industry, Aamir Khan sees it as a little ripple which could perhaps turn into a wave. With the banks and other financial institutions finally taking an interest in financing films, the industry may get used to having schedules, insurance, contracts – and even the international excellence which these make possible, as Lagaan proves. None of this was of much interest to the money launderers of old. But we all need heroes, and the Indian film industry might just have found their own.

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