Ashutosh Gowariker recalls the day Aamir Khan demanded a cast of 20,000 for Lagaan, and he whittled it down to 10,000
Picture this: every time a six is hit or a match-altering catch is taken, 10,000 people rise up in coordinated unison, in a perfectly-synchronised wave, clapping and cheering for the home team. The year is 1893 and a game of cricket is being played on a pitch built on barren land, miles away from the breath of ‘civilisation’. The crowd is well-behaved, watching the match with keen interest. There are five cameras recording every activity, even capturing the deafening noise on sync sound. As the day progresses, the crowd turns restless and hostile, and with the sweltering noonday sun beating down on them, they have just about had it. Somehow, they are placated with the number Aati kya Khandala, as if a lullaby is being hummed to a toddler. This goes on till four in the evening, and finally, an exhausted Ashutosh Gowariker calls it a day. Aamir Khan then emerges to express gratitude to the 10,000 extras who’d arrived in trucks from 90 odd villages in Bhuj, Gujarat.
This is just a small scene from the first day of shooting the cricket match in Lagaan, the David and Goliath face-off between a parched Indian village and supercilious British colonialists. “My main concern was that I had no option but to shoot it that day because I knew the crowd would not come back the next day even if we offered them money. They wouldn’t have come just for rice and chapattis, for sure,” says writer-director Gowariker. It’s been ten years since the film released, and Gowariker has added some extra heft to his physique—and reputation. With only flops (Pehla Nasha and Baazi) to his name prior to Lagaan, this film, the director says, was special to him since it gave him the “courage” to make Swades and “the confidence to do a Jodhaa Akbar”.
How Gowariker and his team went about mobilising 10,000 villagers is a story by itself. Arranging thousands of extras at short notice, especially in a place like Bhuj, where the film was shot in its entirety, was a near-impossible task. As if that wasn’t enough, Aamir Khan, fastidious producer that he is, suggested 20,000 people.
Aamir’s plans for Lagaan were hugely ambitious. From putting aside his ego to meet AR Rahman in Chennai, to signing up a first assistant director, unheard of so far, in New York, travelling to London to hire British casting agents and going personally to convince the royalty of Bhuj, Gujarat, to lend their support, he led from the front. But it’s his advice to Gowariker on the location that hints at the scale he’d envisioned for the film. “Think big, think David Lean,” he told his director. Not for him Film City in Goregaon, which would have kept the budget in check.
But on his demand of 20,000 extras for a day, the Lagaan crew put their foot down, saying they could only produce a few thousand men for the scene. That’s when the chase began. Gowariker sent reliable aides out to nearby villages. When that didn’t work, Gowariker released an advertisement offering money to candidates who may be interested in acting. When that ploy, too, failed, Gowariker entrusted an influential local contractor with the job, who in turn contacted about 90 village heads and sought their help in arranging a force of 10,000.
The actual day of the shoot was the toughest, says Gowariker. The day before, his assistants had offered the food contract to a hotel in Kutch, and thousands of traditional clothes with headgear were picked off shops in Ahmedabad. “The biggest challenge was to ensure the safety and security of the people,” says Gowariker. In no time, in front of Gowariker’s eyes, a sea of men marched in, gradually filling the entire ground, even the hilltops. “As the heat increased, people started getting restless and we didn’t know what was happening or what to do. If the crowd had walked out that day, we couldn’t have got an authentic shot. That’s when Aamir pacified them and we took the shot,” he says. Post-lunch, most people took off their clothes and started drifting off to sleep. “Again, it was Aamir who controlled them. He was very good at it,” says Gowariker.
About 20 days were kept aside for shooting the entire cricket match, and when Gowariker’s team calculated the number of shots they would require, he almost fainted. “Twelve hundred shots meant more stress and more trouble,” he chortles. Indeed, it was a relief that such a large cast was eventually required only for that one day.
Originally, Gowariker had thought of a two-inning cricket match, but dropped the idea, “because that would have taken away the exclusivity. You cannot have Bhuvan playing twice or Captain Russell bowling twice. It would have also made the running time four-and-a-half hours.”
Lagaan was indeed a long film to make and watch. The process of shooting was strenuous, literally a fight against all odds. He recalls, “We built Champaner from scratch. There was no infrastructure. We lodged ourselves in small hotels; some were even put up in a building. Lagaan had a huge cast and crew, and it almost seemed like a small village. Aamir didn’t complain and stayed in a basic room himself.”
Aamir’s belief in the project was amazing, considering that when first narrated the story of Lagaan, he’d flatly turned it down. “Aamir thought the idea was outlandish, something that no producer would accept and no actor would act in. But I didn’t lose hope,” says Gowariker, adding, “There was a madness in me.”