“Lagaan”: The Blockbuster That Almost Didn’t Happen

This year marks 20 years since Ashutosh Gowariker and Aamir Khan’s iconic film took the world by storm, and changed Bollywood forever.

Poulomi Das

July 1, 2021

“Lagaan”: The Blockbuster That Almost Didn’t Happen
The cricketers in Lagaan

In February 2000, Indian filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker found himself in the middle of a desert in Gujarat’s Kutch district shooting a movie that should have been impossible to make. At nearly four hours, Lagaan (2001) is a slow-moving epic about cricket and taxes. Two hours focus on a single cricket match. The director’s last two movies were notable flops. There was little indication that this film would end up winning five Filmfare awards, eight National Awards, and earn an Oscar nomination. And yet, the film changed the face of Hindi cinema. As Aditya Lakhia, the actor who played Kachra, the film’s Dalit spinner, put it, “the Hindi film industry is divided in two eras — pre-Lagaan and post-Lagaan.”

Set in the 1800s during the British Raj, Lagaan tells the story of Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a young farmer in central India, who rebels against increasing taxation on the farmers by challenging an arrogant British administrator to a game of cricket. If the untrained Indian team of scrappy villagers in Champaner could beat the British team, then they wouldn’t have to pay taxes (lagaan). If they lost, however, they’d have to pay “teen guna lagaan” (triple tax).

Made on an unprecedented budget of $6 million, Lagaan was a blockbuster success. It earned both critical and commercial acclaim, making over $18 million worldwide and becoming India’s third-highest-grossing film of 2001. As renowned film critic Roger Ebert noted in his review, Lagaan was “like nothing we’ve seen before, and yet completely familiar.”

Today, 20 years later, Lagaan’s record-breaking achievements also tell different stories — that of a filmmaker intent on challenging the creative limitations of a stagnating industry, a superstar striving for cinematic excellence, a producer setting the gold standard for helming successful big-budget productions, and a film industry realizing that it was possible to dream big. We spoke to the film’s cast, crew, and fans — from cinematographer Anil Mehta to Lakhia to actor Naseeruddin Shah — to piece together the story behind Lagaan