Inevitably, the two mega films just released — Lagaan and Gadar — are being compared. Both are big budgets movies, both are epics of a sort, both deal with traumatic events — the struggle against the British in Lagaan and Partition in Gadar, But are they of the same calibre? And above all, do they reflect the reality of history as it was enacted?
Lagaan starts with a moving scene: the hero (Aamir Khan) is trying to save a deer from being slaughtered by an ‘evil’ British officer (who looks more Indian than English and speaks a caricatured Hindi). Very touching, but the reality is somehow different: Wildlife in India is being slaughtered since Independence at such an alarming rate that soon there will be nothing left; some Bollywood actors are known to have a weakness to go on a hunting trip or two, witness the other Khans, Salman, and Saif Ali, who were caught killing innocent deer in Rajasthan.
Lagaan uses cricket as a metaphor: Indians can be better than the British at their own games; and cricket can be used as war, a sort of a Gandhian non-violent weapon. But both metaphors are untruthful.
Firstly, cricket is a game which is totally unsuited for Indian conditions, as it is meant to be performed in cool weather and on green meadows.
Secondly, cricket in colonial India was played only by maharajas and some of the upper classes who wanted to copy the British, certainly not by 19th century Kutch villagers.
And lastly, if the British had meant — in the same way that Macaulay created generations of Indians, who are brown in their skins but Western in their mind — to kill all other games in India, including indigenous ones, by imposing cricket (have you noticed that Indians are only good at games left by the colonisers: cricket, lawn tennis, hockey, polo…), they have been highly successful.
The adulatory, mad, irrational love for cricket that Indians possess has ensured that not only most Indians are merely armchair sportsmen, but that cricket has ‘vampirised’ all other sports in India, by attracting to itself all sponsorship and media interest. As a result, of the two ‘giants’ of Asia — China and India — the former is one of the top sporting nations in the world and the latter ranks at the bottom of most sports and won only one bronze medal in the last Olympics.
One should also add that cricket’s ‘fair play’, supposedly left by the British, is a hoax: Pakistan may want to play cricket with India but that did not stop Islamabad to send its infiltrators into Kargil, while pretending to be sporty. Some cricketers are spoilt brats making millions of rupees in endorsements, whereas more deserving sportsmen, such as runners, live on a pittance.
On top of that, in Lagaan, there is too much light on the actors’ faces, the Indian costumes are all wrong: women of 19th century Kutch did not wear blouses; Aamir Khan’s hair looks perpetually artfully undone, as if he is wearing a wig; there is also a lot of overacting. If the British were as stupid and caricatural as shown in the film, they certainly would not have been able to keep India — and a huge empire all over the world — for so long. There is no doubt that the English colonisers were devious and cruel — but they did it in a much cleverer way than depicted in Lagaan, by pitting Muslims against Hindus, Christians against Hindus, Sikhs against Hindus, Hindus against Hindus…
Yes, they did impoverish India: according to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, 4 million between 1825 and 1850, 5 million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million between 1875 and 1900. Thus 25 million Indians died in 100 years! (Since Independence, there has been no such famines, a record of which India should be proud.)
But the famines did not happen because the British ‘overtaxed’ farmers, as hinted by Lagaan, it was done in a roundabout manner, by breaking down the indigenous crop patterns of India and substituting it with products which England needed, such as cotton. Finally, Lagaan strives to be very ‘secular’: Hindus and Muslims live harmoniously in this Kutch village (which looks more like a Taj hotel recreation of a khadi village than a real 19th century Gujarati hamlet), and it is the crippled Harijan, who indirectly helps the ‘Indian’ team beat the British. But again, does this correspond to the reality?
By contrast, Gadar is a wonderful film. The theme is real: the Partition of India which cost so much blood on both sides and has left wounds which are so deep, two or three generations later, that I could feel the anguish of my wife, whose Sikh father fled Rawalpindi hiding in a trunk in a train that barely made it to Delhi.
Gadar has an eye for detail; the costumes are right, the cars and trucks are vintage, the lighting is perfect. On top of that the acting is superb: for once, Sunny Deol does not over-perform in great outbursts of pseudo-violence, but is sober, restrained and can be both wonderfully touching and angry, portraying single-handedly the terrible anguish of Partition.
Amisha Patel renders beautifully the extraordinary Indian-ness of the Indian woman (the nuptial scene is both sensuous and leaves a lot to the imagination), and re-enacts the tearing apart that many Indian men and women, be them Muslims or Hindus, felt in themselves in 1947. Split between their religion and nationality, their attachment to India and the mirage that was Pakistan.
Finally, contrary to Lagaan, where you are treated with more than two hours of cricket of which the outcome is highly predictable, Gadar has an intricate scenario with twists and suspense and we leave it to the reader to discover this magnificent film for herself/himself.
Unfortunately, of the two films, there is no doubt that Lagaan (which is at the moment breaking all attendance records) will reap more popular success: it appeals more to ordinary sentiments, touches a certain jingoistic nerve in people and uses cricket the vampire to tap the masses. But the truth is that not only does the Indian team not beat England (nor even Zimbabwe!) very often, but that the British do not even need to beat India in cricket. By having imposed upon India cricket, a game not suited for Indian conditions, they won anyway!
They also won because they managed, better than Aurangzeb even, to divide India. By attacking cinema halls in Delhi, Ahmedabad and Lucknow, certain Muslims have shown, once more, that they are still resorting to the old tactics of the Mughals, regardless of the genuineness of the issue.
Gadar is a non-partisan film, as it treats the Hindu-Muslim problem in a non-judgmental way; and if the heroine does namaaz with her nail polish on, it is a very small matter, that does not warrant riots.
On July 14, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf will sit down in Agra and try to hammer down their differences — which have only one name: Kashmir. But they should remember Sri Aurobindo’s words in 1947: ‘The old communal division into Hindu and Muslim seems to have hardened into the figure of a permanent division of the country. It is hoped that the nation will not accept the settled fact as for ever settled, or as anything more than a temporary expedient. For if it lasts, India may be seriously weakened, even crippled: civil strife may remain always possible; possible even a new invasion and foreign conquest. The Partition of the country must go…’
Unfortunately, since Independence, all Indian and Pakistan leaders have thought that Kashmir can be solved separately from the other problems. But the truth, as shown in Gadar, is that Kashmir, Ayodhya, Kargil, the unrest of the 120 million Muslims, all spring from that great gaping wound that is Partition, which the British wilfully and consciously left behind as a parting gift (remember the words of Churchill when he learnt of the chaos following Partition: ‘At last, we’ve had the last word’).
As long as Pakistanis and Indians do not become conscious of the need to reunite, in whatever form, under whichever framework, they will be other Ayodhyas or Kargils. Kashmir will remain a festering and dangerous wound in the face of South Asia.