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Friday, February 17, 2012

"The Spirit of Lagaan" by Satyajit Bhatkal: Book review / my experience

A NON-SATIRIC POST ..for a change :) hehe


I would rather not call this a book review...I would call this an experience...There are some books which, after being given a read, make you look at them like they are living beings, with life exploding in them...They make you attach to them, a significant quota of affection and sentiment for people/things you like...They make their home in your heart, only to live there, safe and secure forever...They somehow end up warranting at least a hemispherical portion of your sphere of thoughts, if not more...This book is one such piece of magic :)

It is usually not a great deal for me to give my opinion about any book...However, the very thought of giving my honest opinion about a book of this unparalleled stature, in a manner which comes even remotely close to doing justice to how the book actually is, daunts me & gives me shivers down the spine...However, with the minuscule molecule of English-writing paraphernalia that God has been kind enough to give me in this life, I shall , but make a humble attempt...

The cover of the masterpice

Before getting into the book, I guess I have to mention what Lagaan means to me :) ...So let me talk a bit about Lagaan first...As it would surely be among many a reader's all-time favorites...It is, as a matter of fact, MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE HINDI FILM :) ...Lagaan is, in my opinion, THE MOST different Hindi film EVER made...the BEST Hindi film ever made...If ever there should be an example of or synonym to the word "perfection" can be this...Everything about the movie is nothing short of exemplary, spectacular, incredible, mind-blowing & out of the universe - be it the far-beyond-anyone-could-have-possibly-imagined story, or the perfectly-transitive-from-the-story-to-celluloid direction, the realistic-yet-goosebumps-ensuring dialogues, the realism which just makes you erase the word "fiction" of your dictionary, Aamir's performance of a lifetime - you really see Aamir's life on screen, because that is what he has given into his performance - his life; AR Rahman's best musical score ever - it takes an outstanding creative vision, a  fitting-to-a-T understanding of people's feelings and emotions, an unbelievable knowledge of music of all kinds to come up with such a PERFECTLY manipulative background score and soundtrack; Javed Akhtar at the peak of his poetic it the Hindi lyrics which already feel musical just by mere narration..or the English lines in "O rey chori".

Lagaan also holds sentimental value for me, as it was the last ever movie I saw with my parents in the theater, before my dad passed away. The time of us watching this movie was special too. In a family like ours where tension and anxiety shatters its way beyond the sky even for a mosquito bite (I don't blame them for it. In fact, I am proud of the fact that I see such concern & affection only within the family and never anywhere else in the world), one can imagine the magnitude of tension during my Class X board exams. This movie was the perfect de-stresser then. We watched it at Pushpanjali theater in Shivanagar. I have never seen people screaming louder and dancing more for any other movie in my entire life. Every boundary, wicket & six was madly screamed at & I wouldn't have been surprised if the theater's roof came crashing down. I've really lost count of the number of times I've seen the movie ever since. I remember watching this with almost everyone I know :D ...right from watching it with Abhiram when he was in watching it with Ranjitha and Avin when I visited them in San Diego..This movie will always be watched often in all corners of the world, for there is none like it :). I always cry whenever innocent, little Thibu wails after being run out and one of the Englishmen says "Go home, your mother's waiting!". I know the ending & I've seen it way too many times, but thanks to the acting, direction & MOST IMPORTANTLY, the background music, my heart WILL ALWAYS be in my mouth whenever I watch the climax.

I remember the impact it had on me. I always wanted to win every gully cricket match with all the might and vigor instilled in me by the movie. I always wanted to heave a six off the very first ball of the innings, like Bhuvan, whenever I opened the batting. I was a leg-spinner, so I always wanted to ball to turn like that of Kachra's. I wanted it to rain whenever I won any gully cricket match. I played "book cricket" too, with Lagaan characters & the Indian team. I wanted Bhuvan to score a century in book cricket too, and it did happen once or twice :D. This movie is the very best of AR Rahman. Just the mere karaokes of the movie's songs, without any lyrics are enough to make you feel the way you should be feeling in their respective situations. The Lagaan Theme song will always give me goosebumps and overwhelm me with might, poise & grandeur whenever I listen to it. It is the theme which perfectly conveys the scintillating challenge and magnanimous battle that life is. In my opinion, this instrumental is the single best work of ARR, till date. Chale Chalo shall always be THE ONE & ONLY PERFECT motivational song, no matter how many Chak Des and De Ghumma Kes follow in the years to come. The very beat of the song is enough to pump you up with josh. Tears ALWAYS roll in my eyes when Rahman screams "Tooth gayi jo" and "Dharti hila dhenge" and so on, just like they do whenever I listen to "Vellai Pookal". Oh, where have you gone, AR Rahman? You have fallen into the trap of commercialism, which is hindering your creativity. It is obvious for everyone to see. Where, oh, where is such magic these days, in your music? Why doesn't my soul resonate with your music these days, like it ALWAYS used to, earlier? In my humble opinion, I really feel AR Rahman should stop caring about the traps of commercialism, experimentation and just concentrate on doing what the situation demands, like he did in Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. A movie like this has never been made before and can never be made again :).

The Spirit of Lagaan

Coming to the book, I have to thank my brother's mother-in-law for giving me this ..well, I hate to use the word "book" each time, because, like I said, it is something which bursts with life on every page! There are words which seem to be a little closely appropriate like the ultimate roller coaster ride etc, but I still don't get the exact words to describe this book & I don't think I ever will ! I told you, describing this book in a manner anywhere close to doing justice to it, is nothing short of a nightmare! So I will just refer to it as TSOL instead of calling it a mere book. 

Anyway, the first things I'd like to say about TSOL are these:

1. To cut the long story short, there can't be a better demonstration attached to the phrase "dream come true" than this piece of magic called "Lagaan" which has been weaved after putting far-beyond-superhuman effort. 

2. There can't be a better implication of the moral "Hard work done with all sincerity can even move mountains" than this movie.

3. There can't be a better example to say that no matter who you are, what you do & where you are...whether you are an Aamir Khan or an impoverished beggar ..THERE IS NO SHORTCUT TO SUCCESS...YOU HAVE TO WORK HARD, SWEAT IT OUT, GO THROUGH ALL THE TURMOIL AND ANGUISH...TO BEAR FRUIT...

4. While Lagaan can be the most fascinating and entertaining Hindi movie ever made, TSOL is a parallel, unbelievably equally, or may be, an even better fascinating and entertaining story :)

5. There's one thing Ashutosh has proved with this movie - "First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they follow you". So, an important moral - "NEVER BE SCARED TO DREAM !!"


TSOL is just like Lagaan - both of them have the same morals, the same takeaways to offer, the same principles to demonstrate & overall, the main ingredient they share largely in common, IS THE SPIRIT - THE SPIRIT OF LAGAAN, which ENSURES TRIUMPH AND JUBILATION IN THE END . The parallels drawn between the movie and its making are just beyond credibility !!

TSOL highlights how importance & care have been exercised EQUALLY on every single proton, neutron & electron associated with Lagaan. Every bit of TSOL is a bonafide certificate and authentic proof as to why Aamir Khan is called "The Perfectionist". It comes across as no surprise that TSOL is being used in management institutes as a case study regarding teamwork, team management, team spirit among other relevant factors.

The look and feel of TSOL is AS CREATIVE AS the movie, with each chapter being named after an AMAZINGLY ASTONISHINGLY relevant & appropriate lyric or a dialogue from the movie. KUDOS to the author's creativity. This is one of those pieces of art & magic, which ACTUALLY makes you feel the way you are supposed to.VERY FEW books have that capability.

When you read TSOL, you are transported away from the fast-paced, mad, competitive world into a completely different planet. During the one month that I took to read this book, not for a second did I even feel that I'm a Gen-X youth and a new-age techie or whatever you can say. I was so sunk in & so drowned in the book, that I felt like one among the tens of thousands of 19th century villagers who were present there. Some books do that to you. You don't feel like you are reading about a story which happened somewhere sometime ago. You feel like you have been taken away and placed in the midst of a story which is happening right in front of you & you actually tend to feel the proximity between you and the characters you are reading about. TSOL makes you feel like you are in the ground and Bhuvan is batting a few yards away.

Mind you, I'm not kidding when I say this - Whenever there was the description of intense & extreme heat in the barren, drought-struck land of Kutch & the weariness & wear and tear of the whole unit, I actually felt very hot, increased the fan speed and drank a glass of chilled water! Such was the impact on me! Whenever there was good progress in the shooting, I used to feel relieved. Whenever there was physical, mental, emotional stress the unit members were going through, trust me, I felt very stressed reading those things! That's the thing about TSOL - In all your comforts and luxury, IT STILL MAKES YOU FEEL EXACTLY WHAT THE UNIT WAS GOING THROUGH THERE ! It really drowns you & submerges you in itself !

A lot of portions in this book were about the challenges and difficulties faced by the unit, which makes a very stressful read. I did get a slight headache too, once, while reading this. There have been quite a few books I've read, which make stressful reads & you tend to stop them half-way. But TSOL, despite being the MOST stressful reading experience for me, STILL DID NOT DISSUADE ME from reading it ! I sulked and sulked as did the unit during all the hardships they faced. Especially, when the movie took a toll on the health of the unit members, particularly when Ashutosh & a few others had to be hospitalized at different points, when Aamir's feet wore away due to the extreme heat, it really disturbed me. I really wanted them to go up to them & tell them to give up the movie at that point and take their own time to do it in their comfort and leisure, until I realized that I was in a book and not some current affair :D..There were many points in the book where I just thought whether I have to continue reading or not, because of the way the book made me feel stressed. BUT YET, there was SOMETHING about TSOL, which still made want to GO BACK to it, turn the page and continue reading a little more, EACH TIME ! :)

Well, that is it ! - TSOL SIMPLY INSTILLS ITS OWN SPIRIT IN YOU !!!!!!!! :) :) :)
The "NEVER SAY DIE" attitude is contagiously transferred to you, as you endure all the emotions the book stirs in you, until you get to the very end ! :) The best way the message is conveyed is in the line which says that every member of the unit had to pay his share of Lagaan for the movie to be made :).

There is a humungous amount of detail in TSOL which I can talk about, which can fill up an entire planet :). But I will leave it you guys to read and FEEL the Spirit of Lagaan. Let me just give a synopsis of the story. The story begins with Ashutosh Gowariker, a nearly out-of-the-reckoning director with 2 box-office disasters on his belt, setting out to make a movie with a story that has never been narrated before throughout the world, surely even in anyone's dreams!

When Ashu narrates it to Aamir Khan, he dismisses it as a mere fantasy and asks him to ditch the idea right-away. TSOL talks about how the film industry in Mumbai runs, where producers care two hoots for the script and are only bothered about which star is acting in the movie. How producers are all business-minded and want to make only those movies which can get them good returns, no matter how ridiculous the storyline is, as long as there is a good star. A prime example of such a movie is Mela, the one which Aamir was doing just before he eventually conceded to do Lagaan.

However, here's where The Spirit of Lagaan begins - Ashutosh, though disheartened, does not give up, because he has this gut feeling that he's on to something big. He develops the script after doing a lot of research and repeatedly tries to coax Aamir, until one fine day, on hearing his narration of the script, Aamir is moved. Aamir realizes that this is not something ordinary, there is something special about this one. Ashutosh has to do many more such narrations to convince Aamir's family members etc. Aamir, who is hesitant to produce any film in life, due to fear of his family's once-upon-a-time financial losses returning, finally decides to go ahead and take the plunge.

The who's who of film-making fall for the mesmerizing charm of the movie and slowly the unit builds up. However, Aamir insists that people who join the unit, do so SOLELY because of the script & NOT because of him. This condition is put across RIGHT from financier Jhamu Sughand to India's best music director, AR Rahman. Aamir's commitment to the script has been BEST described when the author says - "Producers usually make a beeline and plead with Rahman to do their films. Rahman usually turns many of them down & here is Aamir, himself telling Rahman not to do the film if he does not believe in the script". Aamir tells this to Rahman not once, but at least twice or thrice during the making of the movie. Rahman is taken aback, but agrees. Aamir STILL insists that Rahman listen to the script narration by Ashutosh before making up his mind & signing the dotted line. Rahman is surprised beyond words, agrees and finally becomes a victim of the script's charm. He eventually agrees. He does this with Jhamu, as well as EVERY unit member who comes on board.

So there you go, right from the producer till the spot boy, ONLY THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN THE SCRIPT OF THE MOVIE SHALL BE ENTERTAINED. Others can drop out. HATS OFF TO AAMIR !! WHO ELSE but him, could've come up with such an uncompromising rule? This gives out the message LOUD AND CLEAR - In Lagaan, THE SCRIPT SHALL ALWAYS BE THE BACKBONE, NOT AAMIR ! ANYTHING CAN BE COMPROMISED, BUT NOT THE SCRIPT !! Even in the middle, when Rachel Shelley throws tantrums and creates a hue and cry, Aamir curtly tells her to walk out if she wants, until she realizes the man's commitment, is awed by it and mellows down. This is a lesson for all the movie-makers of today. No matter how many storeys of a film you build, with all 3D technology or glossy SFX effects or photography formats or other technicalities, if the basic foundation i.e. your script is flawed, THE MOVIE WILL COLLAPSE.

Very, VERY few actors put the script of the movie ahead of themselves. The only other actor I've seen SURRENDERING himself to scripts is Kamal Hassan & may be, to some extent, Vikram. Lyricist Javed Akhtar initially ridicules the script, saying that it is too much of a fantasy, but he too, is eventually sucked into the insanity of the whole thing :) and gives in!

The rest of the book is about how this unit braves all the tumultuous and turbulent conditions in the months ahead, how the unit is drained to the point of giving up YET, does not give up and how the unit crosses the finish line with all determination and commitment. How much of a toll making this film takes on their professional lives as well as personal lives, how many sacrifices had to be made, what Aamir's wife Reena went through, as a producer, how this opened a whole new dream world for the British actors and so on.
I cannot throw more light on this part, if I do, my review would be longer than the book itself :D

I shall, however, list out a few moments from the book which shall remain etched in my mind forever.

When Ashutosh is on the lookout for locations and more or less, makes up his mind on Kutch. But Aamir tells him not to worry about the budget & asks him to travel throughout the length and breadth of India to select proper locations. Instead of using sets in Mumbai's Film City, they decided to construct a whole Champaner illage itself, in Kutch. The entire unit is stationed in a newly rented apartment in the nearby town of Bhuj. The houses in the village had to be built according to the olden days, with cow dung used in large quantities on the walls. This is the best line of the book - "Never has bullshit played this important a role in any film!" :D....All the characters spent time at their homes to get a feel of them. These homes would serve as bathrooms for the unit. The temple in the village had to be built without cement. Drinking was banned. A large amount of hay had to be brought in for the animals on the set - horses, cows etc.

The makers had to get a large number of ancient items but the villagers refused to sell them. This is another beautiful moment in the book, whether the author talks about how self-respect, culture and tradition still play an important role for the villagers, more than money. There you go! The most valuable lesson for today's youth - Money isn't everything! Self-respect & other old, human values are!

The movie is shot with sync sound to add to the realistic feel. Sync sound poses a huge threat because of the vehicle sounds, jet sounds etc far away & often warrants the 10,000 odd crowd to maintain pin-drop silence. Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra advise Aamir against it, but the perfectionist does not budge. Sync Sound it is!

I really faint and collapse whenever I think about the attention paid to every single intricate detail by Aamir. You know, if there was a scene in Lagaan where Aamir had to die, I think Aamir would have even given up his own life to make the scene look realistic !!!!!! THAT WAS HIS LEVEL OF PASSION, OBSESSION, COMMITMENT TO ENSURING THE REALISM AND PLAUSIBILITY OF THE MOVIE !!!!!!!!!!!!
I AM NOT KIDDING !! It was also amazing how much attention has been given in order to make sure every member of the unit is kept mentally happy and cheerful, so that he can give his best to the movie! NO ONE, ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER PRODUCER DOES ALL THIS !!!!!! VERY FEW PEOPLE ON EARTH PUT THE MOVIE AHEAD OF THEMSELVES !!!


I will really faint if I even begin to list out the intricate details like ensuring that there are no shoe marks on the ground, no vehicle marks, cricket antiques - the strenuous hunt in London for 19th century British cricket gear, Paul Blackthrone doing his own homework about the then British military mannerisms, the salutes etc, as well as the then cricketers' batting stances, bowling actions and so on. The decision that the movie would not be in Hindi, but in Awadhi, a dialect spoken by villagers which can be understood, Aamir's struggles with it. Ashutosh's shooting despite illness, Aamir's & Gracy's shooting despite their injuries. An Englishman who is grievously injured during a run-out shoot, but stays on until the shot is cut to add to the reality and then stuns everyone when it is shown that he was actually injured...Aaaah !!!!!!!! My mind has already gone numb, I feel unconscious just by reading about all this. Imagine how overwhelmed the unit members must have actually been !!!


Also, the discipline just silences all your thoughts. Food not being served for latecomers, the bus not waiting for those who are late. Aamir himself had to face punishment for this. This crushed all the egos of all the artists, particularly Rachael Shelley. Again, the message is clear. Everyone right from Aamir to the spotboy shall be treated equally and abide by the same rules, the ONLY thing special in the movie is the script. Nothing else.

Well, I'm exhausted after writing so much :) PHEW!! The unit goes through so much emotionally, mentally, physically. But one factor drives everyone spirit contagious spirit tightly bonds the entire unit, with an eclectic, yet, firmly united composition - Brits, Gujaratis, Mumbaikars, villagers, so tightly, that they work in harmony like a spirit carries a unit of 10,000 and odd right from the start line, through all the turbulence and disasters possible right up to the finish line...and that is The Spirit Of Lagaan...:)

This line by Javed Akhtar, from the song "Mitwa" sums up the movie as well as the book best - "Sach aur ehsaas jiske mann mein, anth mein jeet usi ki rahe !" :) 

My rating - / 5 :)...A must-read ...:)
A life-changing, mind-numbing, heartbeat-stopping, thought-silencing experience. Kudos Satyajit Bhatkal, you have written what no other author in this world can write even in his wildest of dreams, about a film which no other director in this world can make even in his wildest of dreams :).


lalsub said...

Your review is fabulous, rather like the book and film itself. I guess your writing drained you as much as it did with the film team. Anyway, great piece of writing. Congrats; and check out for any available copies of the book--maybe at Blossom on church street, or anywhere else.

Watched the video?

Ashwin S Kumar said...

haha ..yeah :) ..thank u!

Yeah I guess I will check out other copies...& I'm yet to watch the video...I should watch it this weekend