Exactly 20 years ago, I wrote a long newspaper article trying to explain what made both Gadar: Ek Prem Katha and Lagaan box office successes. Revisiting the piece earlier this week, I realised how films travel in our heads and morph with time. As societies, nation-states and their preoccupations keep evolving or devolving, so does our outlook. This, in turn, makes us reassess movies, books, even friends, through a new prism and imbue them with new meanings. For instance, when Gulzar’s debut directorial venture Mere Apne was released in 1971, it was generally viewed as a commentary on student unrest. Now the movie feels more like a nuanced study on the treatment of the elderly; a view, no doubt, influenced by increased documentation and media mainstreaming of the condition of senior citizens.
Gadar and Lagaan both released on June 15, 2001 — at a time when designer romances were box-office currency, thanks to an urban middle class now used to the goodies of the decade-old liberalised economy. Pricey multiplexes buttressed the viewers’ self-image of being modern and exclusive — as in excluded from the front stall ‘riff-raff’ — even though movies such as Mohabbatein (2000) were only superficially modern. Dig a little, and they were as conservative as their many viewers. The call centre boom around the time ensured that millions of youngsters had more cash in hand than any generation before. For them, Bollywood dished out slick airbrushed romances like Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai (2000), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997). India Imagined was lording over Bollywood.
In this backdrop, Gadar and Lagaan arrived like the heartland’s counterpunch. Director Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan was the riskier venture. Sports dramas were rare then because they didn’t work. That aside, the film was set in 19th-century India Overlooked. Lagaan’s farmer protagonist wore a dhoti. The characters spoke simplified Avadhi. The villagers had a real-life problem: drought and non-payment of taxes. Gadar was an inter-faith, rich-poor love story between a Sikh and a Muslim in times of Partition. But its hero was an un-gentrified truck driver, the very anti-thesis of Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In their own way, though, both films were fantasies: ‘natives’ triumphing over the colonial ‘enemy’ against impossible odds and a one-man army waging a war against “the enemy on the other side” for his love. Yet they were radically different in tone. Lagaan had a certain refinement. Gadar revelled in its absence; it was angry and over-the-top. But coming just two years after the Kargil War (1999), the idea of a love-struck husband crossing the border to get his wife back, even if it meant taking on a platoon, electrified the popular pulse, and it wasn’t just the single-screens. Gadar was easily the bigger hit of the two. But Lagaan also received a cache of Filmfare Awards and an Oscar nomination. Watching these movies today, Lagaan seems to have aged better though Gadar bhakts may have a different view.
In the two decades that have passed since their release, several events have impacted India’s psyche: Gujarat 2002, 9/11, Indian Mujahideen blasts, demonetisation, anti-CAA protests, to name a few. Both the polity and the public have been polarised; most starkly visible on social media. Globally, issues of race and gender have acquired a more prominent space. What was considered right or acceptable earlier is no longer so. New woke looking glasses are at work; Enid Blyton being the latest example.
Hand pump vs bat: They both made patriotism cool but time has made us view them differently
In such binary times, the films can also be seen as offering two diametrically different approaches of nationalism, even political solutions. Lagaan’s anti-colonialism is soft. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and company don’t use anything more violent than a cricket bat. Gadar’s nationalism is muscular. In director Anil Sharma’s movie, hero Tara Singh (Sunny Deol) refuses to say Hindustan murdabad and bludgeons dozens of Pakistanis with his ‘hand pump’ nationalism. The taunting dialogues — Beta beta hota hai, baap baap hota hai (The son will always be inferior to the father, a reference to Pakistan having been born out of undivided India) — brought claps and whistles then. It’s unlikely that would have changed for most.
That leaves us with a bunch of tantalising ‘what-if’ questions: Who do you think Tara Singh would have voted for in today’s India? What would be Bhuvan’s political allegiance in 2021? Would Kachra, the dalit with the mystery ball, been on the same political side as Bhuvan now? There are no simple answers. But our individual responses would pretty closely reflect who, what and where we are at this moment. Films are what we make of them at every turn of history.
P S: Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001), a yuppie bonding movie with a fresh celluloid sensibility, was a modest success. In terms of both cultural and creative influence, it outshines both.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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