Various Artists’ Lagaan: Once upon a time in India

lagaanThis is not a film review, but rather a look at the soundtrack that is the music of a film. And it’s not an at all typical Bollywood film that most of us are familiar with from India. If you’re confused, read on as hopefully the confusion will be vanished.

However you need to know what the film is about, so here’s a quick overvie. Lagaan: Once upon a time in India takes place in the village of Champaner in 1893. Like all of India, it occupied by the British and subject to payment of a tax (lagaan) to the British for that occupation. This tithe is usually excessive enough that it keeps the already impoverished even more poor than they would already be — not that the bleedin’ colonials care ‘tall ’bout that! Complicating matters, it is a period of extreme drought and the villagers know they will starve if the annual lagaan is not waived by the British. When they approach the local Rajah to plead their case he agrees to petition the local military leader, Captain Russell, on their behalf. Bad idea, really bad idea, as Captain Russell is a sadistic, violent, and angry man who is sadly typical of many of the British officers who got posted to the outposts of the Empire. First he tells the Rajah that he will waive the lagaan for this year if the Rajah will eat a small portion of meat. The Rajah respectively refuses because he is a vegetarian as part of his Hindu faith. A fact that Russell is of course aware of, the bastard that he is!

(It won’t surprise you that, given this is a Bollywood film, Russell gets what he richly deserves in the end.)

Instead, he challenges them to a cricket match, a game totally alien and unknown to them. (In itself, an interesting premise given that cricket was played almost everywhere in the Empire by this time.) If they win the match, they will be free for seven years from paying this cursed tithe; if they lose, however, the increased tax burden will surely destroy their lives. The people are terrified, but one man thinks the challenge is worth staking their entire future on. Will he convince the villagers to give it their best shot? Bhuvan, an informal leader of Champaner, tells the Rajah that the villagers agree to the contest. Not surprisingly, once word of the bet spreads into the province, and the people learn of the consequences, a near riot ensues and Bhuvan is put under tremendous pressure to create a team of men from the entire province as both sides agree that all of the province is now in on the bet.

The three-day match begins and victory or defeat comes down to the last ball on the last day in a very exciting finish. But Lagaan also involves, in true Bollywood fashion, two romances, a few near tragedies, and lots of singing. I mean lots of singing. Did I mention that it runs 224 minutes, which is just under four hours? And that the cricket match is much of the film? Having seen cricket played live a time or two in India, I can say that, though shorter, it does catch the dusty, somewhat tedious feel of this game when it’s too hot to do much of anything.

But I’m here to talk about the soundtrack. The music for Lagaan was composed by AH Rahman who, as Richard notes in his review of the Bollywood Brass Band’s Rahmania CD, ‘is tremendously popular in India, where a Rahman soundtrack can add considerable box-office appeal to the Bollywood vehicle it graces. Rahman’s work has also found a ready audience in the London-centred Asian Underground scene, where it can be heard as an influence on artists such as State of Bengal, who produced a memorable version of Rahman’s ‘Behind My Elephant’ with the National Cinema Orchestra.’

Bollywood music, or at least that by this composer, is bright, bouncy, and full of lyrics that, if you translated them into English, would be at home as the plot for a soap opera. But the music is much better than that statement would suggest. After I watched Lagaan for the first time on some cable channel late at night a few winters ago, I had to find the soundtrack, a feat made easy at that time by Amazon, but who alas now says it’s out of print. Sigh…

The music is superb from the wonderful vocals, particularly the interplay of male and female voices, to the tabla drum which I’ve appreciated as a musical instrument ever since I hear Davy Cattanach of the Old Blind Dogs use one in concert. All the music here is a well-crafted fusion of traditional Hindi score as composed by Rahman and Western rhythms which plays nicely off of the film’s theme of imperialism. Even though I have but a smattering of Hindi, the lyrics sound wonderful. I’ll admit that appreciating the music is enhanced by seeing the film first as that will help remind you of what each song represents.

Lagaan starts off with ‘Ghanan Ghanan’, an upbeat number with the above noted male and female vocals and a percussive beat, a foretelling of how the plot will develop. (Warning — I will watch movies set in foreign cultures with plots that I wouldn’t touch in English. Call it reverse colonial snobbery.) ‘Mitwa’ follows by yet increasing the tempo a few more degrees, and is certainly the most Westernized number in the album, a reason that it’s me least favourite number here. Then comes ‘Radha Kaise Na Jale,’ the song that accompanies the famous dance of the Gopis — this song has yet more wonderful percussion. A jewel of a song, and a love song to boot, is ‘O Rey Chhori,’ where Indian classical music meets and merges with Western symphonic music. The album ends with two symphonic numbers with ‘O Pallanhaare,’ a prayer, finishing out the soundtrack.

With only a single caveat, that being that one song is horribly marred by a English-language interlude, it’s all wonderful music. Good stuff indeed! Check it out and you won’t be disappointed tall. My only real complaint is that it’s a short soundtrack which given the length of the film could have easily filled two CDs with music! Oh, and there are no liner notes ‘tall, a condition that is not surprising as the Web site for Lagaan has very little on it, other than a campaign to get the film an Oscar, and a few reviews!

Is this worth purchasing? Yes. But do check out our reviews of the Rough Guide to the Music of India CD and the Bollywood Brass Band CD for other looks at Bollywood music.

(Sony Music, 2001)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related. My drink, or so my wife Brigid, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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