June 16, 2021

Screenwriting Lessons from 'Lagaan'

This article of mine was published on Film Companion on the twentieth anniversary of 'Lagaan'.

If films were textbooks, Lagaanreleased 20 years ago, would be my favourite textbook of all time. Here are ten lessons from the film which I believe can help us as we strive to write our own stories for the screen:

1. Solid Core, Unique Cover: What, in your story, evokes empathy in the audience? What makes the audience truly care for your characters? These are the most important questions we must ask while evaluating a story idea. Lagaan works so well because of what is at stake for its characters. Survival corresponds to the lowest layer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is basal, the most fundamental need in living beings, and hence, the most universal. My grandmother may not understand English, but she can watch Cast Away with rapt attention because someone’s survival is at stake. The only genre where I can sit through a bad movie is horror — for the same reason.

The villagers of Champaner will die if they lose the match. This powerful simplicity forms the core of the story, along with the themes of injustice and the common man’s fight against the atrocities of an unjust ruler. This core has a unique and supremely attractive covering — in the form of the setting of the film, the rich, colorful socio-cultural milieu of a 19th-century Indian village, flanked by the British cantonment and the king’s palace on its either sides, where a game of cricket has to be learned, played, and won. This covering is unlike anything we have seen, thus lending originality and excitement to the simple, universal core. Most poor stories, ironically, do the exact opposite — they have an ill-defined, uninteresting, or esoteric core in a simplistic, familiar, and even predictable covering.

2. Your Film is a Concert: And each character is a musical instrument. Apart from a grand piano, make sure you have a rich string section of violins and violas, but also cello and double bass. You must have drums and cymbals but also a tambourine and a triangle. And you must have flutes, clarinets, horns, and trumpets. Nothing makes Lagaan more rewatchable than its wonderful set of characters: Guran’s eccentricities, Gauri’s endearing innocence, Elizabeth’s self-assured grace, Captain Russell’s cruel megalomania, Lakha’s shape-shifting, Bagha’s quiet strength, and Deva Singh Sodhi’s drive for redemption. Essentially, your characters should have specific roles to play, but they should be as different from each other as possible. They are each playing their own tune, and yet the resulting music is not discordant but harmonic.

3. Character is Story: British officers from a cantonment and poor farmers from an Indian village play a game of cricket to solve a purely bureaucratic matter of land tax. Could anything be more ridiculous than this? And yet, when the film reaches its Act I Climax, and Bhuvan utters the now-famous affirmation — “Sarat manjoor hai”(“सरत मंजूर है”) (“I accept the bet”) — it looks like the most obvious thing to have happened in that universe.

The starting point of plotting should always be the character. What kind of a British officer would make a ridiculous challenge like that — someone who reduces everything, even human dignity, life, and death, to a game. The first time we see Captain Russell, he is hunting, driven by his belief that “Angrez shikaar ke khel mein duniya mein sabse aage hain” (“अंग्रेज़ शिकार के खेल में दुनिया में सबसे आगे हैं”) (“The British are the best when it comes to hunting”). In his second appearance, he agrees to Rajaji’s diplomatic request regarding the temple on the condition that he eats the meat. When we see him for the third time, he makes the offer to Bhuvan.

Now, what kind of a villager would accept an impossible challenge like this — someone who sees opportunity in crises and who has tremendous self-belief and courage. We see Bhuvan perform two decisive actions before accepting the challenge: one, his ingenious disruption of Russell’s hunting; and two, a confident public proclamation of a rebellion if Rajaji refuses to lower the tax. When these two men come face to face, they do exactly what the writer wants. What we expected to be ridiculous is now a believable, engrossing drama.

4. A Ride through Hell: Screenwriting guru Robert McKee states in his book Story that the satisfaction the audience gains from any film is directly proportional to the degree of antagonism the hero faces. We want our heroes to win, but only after they have gone through hell. This antagonism should not just be strong, but also complex and layered.

Captain Russell is the strongest force of antagonism for Bhuvan. But there are several other conflicts he has to face: the villagers who act like threshold guardians refusing to be a part of Bhuvan’s journey, their age-old prejudice that resists Kachra’s inclusion into the team, the imminent betrayal by Lakha, and the challenges of the game itself. Until the very end, there are rules Bhuvan is unaware of and the game unfolds like an adventure into a mysterious land. Even when the senior British officers reprimand Russell and issue an ultimatum to him, our villain’s suffering only increases his determination to win the game. Bhuvan and his teammates go through actual physical suffering too — bloodied ears, huffing lungs, body blows, and a fractured foot. All that could go wrong, goes wrong until the final delivery. When Bhuvan hits the winning six, it is that which satisfies us at a subconscious level — the fact that he suffered way more than we feared he would.

5. Little Tales in a Grand Epic: The heart-warming love triangle of Elizabeth, Gauri, and Bhuvan. The betrayal by Lakha and later, his redemption. The heroic victory of Kachra over his social handicap. The homecoming of Ram Singh who gives up his job with the British. The atonement of Deva Singh Sodhi, a former soldier in the British army. The humiliation and the fightback of Arjan. The harmless nagging rivalry of Goli and Bhura. The secret romance between Bagha and Jigni. Lagaan is a rich mesh of emotionally fulfilling subplots, simple enough to be told economically without hurting the main plot. In fact, each of the subplots feeds the main plot and nothing is extraneous. Identifying, constructing, and structuring subplots is a tricky business. But its rewards are many.

6. Trust Simplicity and Exaggeration: In more than a decade of teaching screenwriting and direction, I have found that most young, aspiring filmmakers do not value simplicity. I don’t blame them. When I was in my early twenties, I too was fascinated by complex stuff. I thought complex was cool and that it showed my intellectual superiority and refined taste.

The second problem I observe among many screenwriters, new or experienced, is their hesitation to exaggerate. Epistemologically speaking, it is impossible to know what is adequate, until you have gone beyond it. Only when water starts overflowing do we know for sure that the vessel is full and we should not pour anymore. Hence, we must exaggerate and only then tone things down to what we think is optimum. The storytelling of Lagaan is rooted in simplicity — it’s like a grandmother narrating a fable — but the drama is as exaggerated as it could be, until the last second of the cricket match. The underappreciated art of simplicity and exaggeration deserves more attention than any of us have been willing to give.

7. The First Action: What is the first thing we see Neo Anderson do in The Matrix? He wakes up. In the story, Neo eventually opens his eyes to reality. Rohan, in the opening scene of ‘Udaan,’ is escaping and defying authority with the help of his friends. Later, he will take his first flight, escaping the brutal authority of his father. Both of these opening actions foreshadow the journeys the protagonists will undertake in the respective films.

Lagaan does this even better. After a long build-up of “Bhuvan kahaan hai?” (“भुवन कहाँ है?”) (“Where is Bhuvan?”), we find him trying to save an innocent animal from the brutality of Captain Russell. Not only is Bhuvan fearless, determined, and innovative in his effort, this is a matter of life and death, reduced by the British to a game. Note that the game is theirs, but Bhuvan believes he can make those bullets go to waste using the ill-shaped stone pebbles in his hand. The scene foreshadows Bhuvan’s upcoming endeavor. With the help of indigenous cricketing equipment and self-belief, he will try to defeat the British in their own game, with the villagers’ lives at stake.

With some imagination, you can find just the right opening action for your protagonist, whatever be the story or its constraints. We tried to do exactly that with Chintu’s father, Madan, in our film Chintu Ka Birthday. His opening act is a prayer, reminding us that no bad comes to those who keep faith. As he does that, Madan watches his son repeat the prayer after him. The transfer of faith is complete, without any effort.

8. Hide the Design: The biggest achievement of the many great scenes in Lagaan is the number of functions they serve. The “Eat the Meat” scene has a strong narrative function — it leads to the idea of double-tax, but it also sets up Russell’s character for the main plot, seeds in Rajaji’s cold war with Russell, makes us hate him and yet be enamored by his quirks, and introduces Elizabeth and Lt. Smith to us. When you create scenes that are so dense in their function, your writing becomes economical. But more importantly, all your design of plot and character hides behind the richness of the scenes. The audience has so much to see from the world of the story that they stop seeing you — the writer, the craftsperson, the storyteller.

9.The Spoken Word: KP Saxena, who wrote the Hindi dialogue for the film, is perhaps the biggest unsung hero of Lagaan. The richness of language in Lagaan is, as it should be in screen stories, conversational, although it has enough proverbs, ear-tickles, rhymes, and alliteration to make it a work of literature. It uses a concoction of Awadhi, Brajbhasha, and Bhojpuri for its linguistic flavor, but flushes in enough Khadi Boli to make it work for the urban Indian audience. The British speak a healthy mix of English and Hindi to keep things realistic while also ensuring that Indians who do not understand English have no trouble following them.

An example is from the scene where Bhuvan is having a chat with his mother, on the night after accepting the challenge and realising that he is all alone in this venture:

“Maa tohri kasam, maine jo kiya theek kiya. Mann kat-ta hai mora jab hum raja ka lagaan bharat hain, aur wo firangiyon ki gandi hatheli pe dhar det hain. Tu bol maa, dharti ki chhaati cheer ke beej koun boye hai? Hum boye hain. Phir seeche koun hai? Hum hi! Phir lagaan unki gaanth kaahe baandh dein? Gora sahab ki baat, maa, teen saal ka lagaan maaf kare ki baat thi. Main ka goonga ho jaata, maa? Tu bol, goonga ho jaata main?”

“माँ तोहरी कसम, मैंने जो किया, ठीक किया. मन कटता है मोरा जब हम राजा का लगान भरत हैं, और वो फिरंगियों की गन्दी हथेली पे धर देत हैं. तू बोल माँ, धरती की छाती चीर के बीज कौन बोए है? हम बोए हैं. फिर सींचे कौन है? हम ही! फिर लगान उनकी गाँठ काहे बाँध दें? गोरा साहब की बात, माँ, तीन साल का लगान माफ़ करे की बात थी. मैं का गूँगा हो जाता, माँ? तू बोल, गूँगा हो जाता मैं?”

Another example is from the moment when Bhuvan has almost succeeded in convincing Goli to join the team. With tears in his eyes, Goli starts wondering aloud:

“Toh ka humra lagaan maaf hoga? Hum bhar pet khaayenge? Kaa humre sapne sach honge? Nahin, nahin Bhuvan, tu geeli chutki mein namak pakad rahaa hai!”

“तो का हमरा लगान माफ़ होगा? हम भर पेट खाएँगे? का हमरे सपने सच होंगे? नहीं, नहीं भुवन, तू गीली चुटकी में नमक पकड़ रहा है!”

I have always been affected by the simplicity of the lines leading up to the final doubt. What a beautiful way to convey that Bhuvan is trying to hold on to an impossible hope! Of course, Bhuvan’s reassuring reply that follows comes from Javed Akhtar’s beautiful verse:

“Bharosa kar, Goli. Sach aur saahas hai jiske mann mein, ant mein jeet usi ki rahe hai.”

“भरोसा कर, गोली. सच और साहस है जिसके मन में, अंत में जीत उसी की रहे है.”

10. Write for the Medium: If you are dying to tell a story, find the right medium for it. Otherwise, you are not doing justice to your story. On the other hand, if you want to write for the screen, find the story most suited to the medium. Lagaan is a visual story. Its battles, its drama, and some of its greatest moments rely on visual action — not on conversations, or internal monologue. Many of the aspiring filmmakers I meet try to tell stories where characters are either talking a lot or are engrossed in deep thought. It is very rare to find a young filmmaker who actually understands the dramatic power of visual action. Remember what our hero does after being ridiculed by the entire village? He does not try to convince them with words anymore. Rather, he carves a cricket bat, hoping to demonstrate — in a long sequence of swings and misses — how “easy” it is to play the game. And just when the curiosity and the stakes are really high, he manages to hit the ball that soars in the sky, and lands at the temple gate, not before ringing the temple bell in the process. The eyes of Bhuvan twinkle at the miracle. His efforts have resulted in a divine prophecy. He will win, as long as he keeps fighting with truth and courage in his heart. Bagga and Guran join him. The long and tough fight for survival begins.

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