It has been 20 years since Bhuvan and his team of 11 underdogs picked up bat and ball to fight against oppression. Aamir Khan’s extraordinary period piece Lagaan has turned 20 but its impact on the pop culture is far from dated. Whether it’s the story of the indomitable human spirit, AR Rahman’s terrific score or the marriage of cricket and drama, Lagaan still hits out of the park as it did 20 years ago.
Interestingly, much like the struggle of Bhuvan and his boys on screen, Aamir Khan and the team of Lagaan went through an overwhelming journey of obstacles and self-doubt, which was finally beaten by sheer conviction, the superstar reveals as he walked down the memory lane in a virtual conversation with a group of journalists to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lagaan. This also marks 20 years of Aamir Khan Productions.
‘Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar were concerned’
Aamir Khan shared how weeks before he was set to begin shooting Lagaan, his friends from Bollywood — filmmakers Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar– cautioned him against two things, both of which he did during the film’s making.
“When I decided to make Lagaan, I knew I had taken up a huge challenge. It’s an unusual film and just a few weeks before I left for shooting, I met with Adi Chopra and Karan Johar. Karan and Adi are very good friends of mine and they were genuinely concerned. They were saying ‘Aamir tu itni badi film bana raha hai as your first production and we have heard that it’s a single schedule, sync sound.’
“They asked me to not do one schedule. They said it will be a mess and you will have no time to correct your mistakes. They also advised me against sync sound because no one has done that for the longest time and shooting will get delayed,” Aamir shared.
The actor added that his decision to stick with his conviction worked wonders, and since Lagaan, he has finished films in one schedule and used sync sound for every project. The actor chuckled as he shared that now even both Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar follow the same rules.
“I had wanted to do this for years, because the sound that I get on live emotion is wasted and we will have to recreate it in dubbing. My producers wouldn’t listen to me so when I became the producer, I did that. That experiment was so successful that I have only done sync sounds and shot all my films in single schedule since Lagaan. It made me realise that I was thinking the right way,” Aamir said.
‘Ashutosh Gowariker and Reena were always at loggerheads’
Aamir Khan revealed that he often acted as a ‘referee’ between director Ashutosh Gowariker, and producer and his former wife Reena, who weren’t on the same page.
“I remember I was in the make-up room and early morning, Ashustosh and Reena came to me. They were always at loggerheads. And I used to be the referee,” Aamir said, narrating an incident where the three had to make one of the toughest calls on shoot, which also resulted in him getting shouted at ‘badly’ by Reena.
“So that day we had to shoot the scene where the team is practising and people from other villages have come to watch it. Ashutosh had given a requirement of 500 people or so. In the morning, Ashutosh realised that 500 people were not enough. So he told Reena, ‘This isn’t looking enough I would need more people.’ Reena was like, ‘Now, at the last moment, how will I get more people? You asked for 500 people and I got it. Now, you shoot.’
“So Ashutosh came to me and said, ‘Aamir I feel the number of people is not enough. What should we do?’ And Reena was like ‘I don’t want to hear anything, you all can’t cancel the shoot. You have to shoot.’ I also found that it wasn’t enough people. I said we had to cancel the shoot that day. I got shouted at so badly, but Ashutosh was right,” Aamir recalled.
The lesson that Aamir Khan learnt from this episode was that he needed to stick to his vision. The actor said though they did incur loss for cancelling the shoot, the scene turned out far better because of the creative call they took.
“Now, if I would have decided to shoot with 500 people, the scene would have turned out in a certain way. But because we insisted that ‘let’s get 1500 people and let’s shoot it properly,’ we lost money but the scene came out the way it should have.”
‘Every day I used to wonder if I have done the right thing to sign Lagaan’
Aamir Khan shared how every day on the film’s shoot, he doubted if he had taken on too big a project.
“Every day I used to have that doubt. There’s a scene in the film in the second half where the Champaner team is not doing that well and the British players kind of demoralise the Indian players. Post that, there’s a scene when Bhuvan is standing inside the temple, looking disheartened and for the first time has doubt on his face. And his mother comes from behind and is surprised to see that expression on his face. He replies, ‘Maa, eeh beeda uthake humne kauno galti toh nahi ki (Have I made a mistake taking up this challenge)?’ Now, there were problems on the shoot every day. The cricket part of it was unending. We would finish 10 shots and Ashutosh would come up with five more, the film was anyway over budget. So, one day I told Ashu, ‘Eeh beeda uthake humne kauno galti toh nahi ki?’ He laughed so much and that became a running joke on our set. Whenever we would be in a problem, either he would say to me or I would use that line.
‘I wasn’t prepared for Gadar vs Lagaan’
It was one of the biggest box office clashes one had seen. Two superstars, two ambitious films and two stories of India. Aamir Khan said that while he expected Gadar to have a strong emotional core, he was far from prepared for the “tsunami” that the film eventually turned out to be.
“When I got to know that Gadar was coming with Lagaan, with Anil Sharma and Sunny Deol, one does get concerned. However, I always believed when two films are good, they will work. The producer of Gadar had once told me the outline of the story and I had liked it a lot. I told Ashu that they had a solid story in hand and its emotion was so strong that it wouldn’t go wrong. I told him, ‘Be prepared for a very good film.’ What I was not prepared for was the monster of the film that Gadar was.”
Aamir said he finds it unbelievable that Lagaan managed to last in front of Gadar. “Gadar was at least three times bigger than Lagaan. So, today I think how did we manage to last in front of that film?’ Gadar was a tsunami. If Lagaan was even one per cent less than it was, we wouldn’t have lasted.”
‘I was disappointed we didn’t win the Oscar’
Lagaan released on June 15, became a massive success and captured the imagination of the country like very few films have been able to. The cherry on top was the Oscar nomination. Lagaan was shortlisted among films that competed at the 2002 Academy Awards for what was called the best foreign language film award. The loss left fans back home disheartened.
Looking back at the Oscar defeat, Aamir Khan said that while he shared the disappointment of the audience, he always looked at the nomination as a big victory than focusing on the snub as a huge loss.
“Of course, I was disappointed, we would have liked to win. And a lot of people have asked me what you could have done differently in Lagaan so that it could have won at the Oscars. Was it because there were songs, the length etc etc. What I have been trying to tell people over the years is that at the Oscars, it’s such a difficult process. To get nominated means a huge percentage of the members of the foreign language committee have loved your film. They have loved it so much that you are in the top 5,” the actor said.
“What we fail to appreciate is that the members of the foreign language committee actually loved our film. If they had not loved our film we wouldn’t have reached the top 5. So that means there was nothing wrong in the film.”