Lagaan and the Bollywood film tradition

In watching Lagaan, I was reminded of the increasing interest in the west in Bollywood films. For those not familiar with it, ‘Bollywood’ is a generic term for films produced mostly in the prolific studios of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), an industry that rivals Hollywood in size. But a Bollywood film is not merely defined by where it is produced but also by the nature of its content. (A caveat: I have never been a fan of Bollywood films and my following comments should not be too taken seriously because I have not seen many such films, and the few I did see were many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka. It is quite possible that my perceptions are out of date and that these films have changed and improved considerably over time.)

Bollywood films were immensely popular in Sri Lanka despite being in Hindi (a language not spoken there) and with no subtitles. The lack of understanding of the dialogue did not seem to pose a problem for audiences because the strict formula and conventions of these films made the general features of plot transparent and the details immaterial. The formula required many things. The films had to be long, at least three hours. Cinema was the chief form of popular entertainment and poor people wanted their money’s worth. The films were also outrageously escapist. The male and female leads were invariably young and good looking and middle or upper class, with lifestyles beyond the reach of most of their audiences. The plot was always boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-lose-each-other, boy-and-girl-overcome-problems-and-get-married.

The plot usually involved some misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved if someone had simply spoken up at the right time, but inexplicably does not. A daft woman was often the culprit. Providing light relief and humor is a comic sub-plot, usually involving servants or working class or stupid people, that runs in parallel with the main story line. The villain in the film usually has no redeeming qualities. In fact, the main romantic leads and the villain lack complexity and depth of character, being just types. This makes it easy to root for the heroes and hiss the villain. It is usually the supporting characters who are allowed to display some complexity and development. And a Bollywood film must end happily, with the villain getting his (it is usually a man) just desserts.

And of course, there have to be songs. Lots of songs. Combined with dancing. Lots of dancing. These are combined into big production numbers that break out often for no discernible reason and seem to go on and on and serve no purpose in the story other than to jazz up the proceedings. The song-and-dance scenes usually involve rapid changes of clothes and location. Just within one song, the couple might be singing wearing one outfit in their local town, then the location will shift to London in another outfit, then to the Alps, then Tokyo, and so on. Why? No dramatic reason. Just to give the audience the sheer escapist pleasure of seeing the world’s tourist spots. The romantic leads sing and dance in parks and play peek-a-boo behind the trees.

The songs, songwriters, and the singers of the songs (called “playback singers”) are the actual stars of a Bollywood film. They are not seen and the actors lipsynch to them, transparently so. Little effort is made to match the actor’s own voice with that of the playback singers. It is not unusual in a big ensemble song-and-dance scene for several characters who have vastly different speaking voices to ‘sing’ different lines, while the same playback singer is used for both. Verisimilitude is not a high priority for Bollywood film audiences, who seem to subscribe to Duke Ellington’s dictum: “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Lagaan sticks to the Bollywood formula in many areas but deviates from it in significant ways. It is very long but it is a tribute to the screenwriters and director that I did not feel it dragging at all. There is no comic sub-plot. The song-and-dance numbers are still there but thankfully much fewer (I think there were only six) and they were integrated into the story and advanced the plot. In fact, the last song, a devotional one sung by the villagers during the night before the third and final day of the match when they had their backs to the wall and were asking god to help them, was extraordinarily beautiful and very moving.

One Bollywood tradition that was retained in Lagaan was that the male and female leads must always be good looking and well-groomed and very buff, whatever the circumstances. Here they play two young people in an impoverished village that is baking in the heat, suffering from drought, and the people close to starving. You would expect such people to look somewhat emaciated and haggard, and yet the two leads always look like they have just come from a spa, with hair in place, clean-shaven, clean clothes, and make up done just so. Only the supporting characters sweat and wear torn and shabby clothes.

Another tradition that was retained was that the villain had no redeeming qualities. Here the villain was the British Captain Russell who offered the wager that could not be refused. He always has a sneer on his face and never seems to miss an opportunity to be nasty. In order to do a trivial favor for the raja (prince), he insists that the raja (who is a vegetarian) must eat meat. He kicks and beats with a whip a villager who accidentally hurts his horse while shoeing him. He yells at a subordinate because he did not seem him salute. And he kills a deer and rabbit for fun. You can be sure that the director chose those particular animals for their cuteness appeal and to increase the repulsion of the audience. The closeups of those two animals just prior to their death show them looking like Bambi and Thumper. I am surprised that Russell was not shown kicking a puppy.

But all that pales before the unmistakable sign of Russell’s bad character, which is that he indulges in unsportsmanlike behavior at cricket! In British tradition, cricket is the ultimate venue for fair play and anyone who does not play by the spirit of the rules, let alone the letter, is undoubtedly a bad person. George Orwell in his essay Raffles and Miss Blandish highlights this peculiarly British belief that someone who is good at cricket and upholds its spirit of sportsmanship is automatically assumed to be a good person, whereas someone who acts unsportingly, let alone (gasp!) cheats at the game, is considered a bounder, a cad, a scoundrel, a blackguard, completely beyond the pale. (Raffles is a fictional character in British literature, a thief who uses his acceptance in high society and invitations to their parties to steal people’s valuable possessions from their homes. No one suspects him because he played for the English national cricket team so how could he possibly be a thief?) To do something, anything, that is branded as ‘not cricket’ is to be accused of violating the spirit of fair play.

Although Lagaan retains some of the Bollywood and cricket clichés, it is a tribute to the film that it is also able to rise above them and tell a good story well.

Next: Cricket and the class system.

POST SCRIPT: So that explains it

New Scientist magazine reports on the results of a new study that finds that “Overconfident people are more likely to wage war but fare worse in the ensuing battles”. It also finds that “Those who launched unprovoked attacks also exhibited more narcissism.”

The study, done by Dominic Johnson of Princeton University involving 200 volunteers playing war games, was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Bertram Malle of the University of Oregon says that “the study raises worrying questions about real-world political leaders. “Perhaps most disconcerting is that today’s leaders are above-average in narcissism,” he notes, referring to an analysis of 377 leaders published in King of the Mountain: The nature of political leadership by Arnold Ludwig.”

Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut comments that “One wishes that members of the Bush administration had known about this research before they initiated invasion of Iraq three years ago,” he adds. “I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of political scientists is that the Bush administration was overconfident of victory, and that the Iraq war is a debacle.”

I think it is naïve to think that things might have been different if the Bush administration had known of this study. I can’t recall the source now but there was an earlier study that found that the prime reason that some people are so incompetent is that they are unaware that they are incompetent! They do not think that negative indicators apply to them and thus do not seek to improve themselves. Such a lack of realistic self-awareness seems to be a hallmark of the current leadership.

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