Post-orientalism in “Lagaan Once upon a time in India”

Snake charmers, carpet vendors, and veiled women. These are the images of India evoked in the mind of the western spectator feverishly waiting in a cinema hall. But in Lagaan, Once upon a time in India, are only one side of the story.

And, perhaps more crucially, one of the most powerful media in the world. They are cradle of encounters and emotions, locus of construction, deconstruction, negotiation; creation. When written by western directors, movies on the East may become a space for depicting an old, exotic, fantastic land.

Bollywood films, on the other hand, could be the locus for the imagining of a new India. An India in pursuit of new ways of thinking about itself.

Lagaan: Once upon a time in India (2001) is an emblematic core of imagination—and representation. I argue it is a tool to free India from Orientalist narratives. The goal of this article is twofold: first, to critically analyze how orientalist western-oriented paradigms shape the Indian cinematographic scenario.

Finally, to illustrate how the discourse of Orientalism is deconstructed in Lagaan—and the gaze of observation reversed.

Orientalism is a philosophical and aesthetic movement of the 18-19th century.

It is not a static concept. Rather, it refers to various historical frameworks of thinking. It is the analysis—in itself, inherently Eurocentric—of customs, cultures and languages of people of the East. Or, as penned by Edward Said,

the acceptance in the West of “he basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

In a nutshell, Orientalism serves as a system of knowledge which creates and propagates subjective representations of the Other.

It is “West patronizing representations of the East”. Orientalist, “exoticized” and fictionalized images of India abound in western movies.

The geographic image of India often coincides with two ideas.

That of the jungle, the real one—untamed and exotic, like in The Jungle Book. And the metaphoric one—like in Slumdog Millionaire, where urban spaces become as much a jungle as the literal forests of India.

This geographic dimension intermingles with the spiritual narratives of India. Here the country becomes a cradle of traditions, dance, rituals and mysticism.

These orientalist readings of India do intrigue the western spectator. However, they also have an impact on the Eastern cinematographic paradigms—and, perhaps more crucially, on the imagination of Indian masses.

The Internalisation of the Orientalism” the absorption of the Orientalist discourse by the Orientals) would reveal itself in two forms:

  1. the re-positioning of the East according to the Western perception
  2. the reaction to Orientalism on the other.

The latter has acquired different forms—and Post-orientalism is one of those; the former consists in perceiving Orientalism in line with the requests of the West; re-orienting the East according to this perception; and considering being closer to the West as a privilege in itself.

These two answers to Internalized Orientalism may coexist in one film. Lagaan, Once upon a time in India is a glaring example of this.

Set in 1863 in the village of Champaner in Kutch, Lagaan, Once upon a time in India is an Indian epic sports-drama film. it is also the story of a team of villagers playing cricket against an oppressive colonial regime to save their lives, families and land.

It is a tale of community, love, and sport; also, it talks about oppressors, oppressed and, ultimately, empowerment and emancipation.

Lagaan, Once upon a time in India is, all in all, a story about India.

“The year is 1863. Champaner, A small village in the heart of India” the narrator declares in the first minute of the movie. The spectator finds himself into the heart of the rural village of Champaner during the British occupation. In 1863, like every year, the British impose a crippling land tax, in Hindi a Lagaan, on the villagers.

The year of the movie, however, there is drought: “Last year it rained, but very little. And this year, there has been no rain so far. Dry eyes…scan the sky,” recites the narrator. The peasants are indeed unable to pay the tax. Captain Russell, the arrogant British army officer who rules the area with an iron fist, increases Lagaan on a whim.

Meanwhile, the local ‘raja’ is nothing more than a nominal head, although responsible for the welfare of his subjects.

The subjects approach the king with a request for tax waiver while he is watching a cricket game played by the British officials. Outraged that a young, spirited, peasant boy, Bhuvan, describes cricket as feringhee version of gilli danda, a game that he, Bhuvan, has played since he was a child, Captain Russel throws Bhuvan and the peasants a challenge.

If the villagers can beat the British in a cricket match, they will have the taxes of the entire province waived for the next three years. But if they lose, they will must pay three times the amount of regular tax that year.

Bhuvan accepts the challenge notwithstanding the opposition from his fellow villagers, and, with courage and conviction, he persuades his village that his acceptance of the bet is the right thing to do.

Now he simply has to assemble a team and learn a game they have never heard of before.

The “Internalization of Orientalism is portrayed 1) though the re- affirmation of orientalist paradigms and 2) as the post-orientailst answer on the other. The re-orientation of Orientalist patterns occurs as explicit reference to the simplistically “exoticed” India perceived by European eyes.

Seeing the unfairness of her brother’s actions, the British lady offers to teach the Indians how to play the game. Always in white dress, she explores the rural, barren India of 1863 as an outsider.

She is passionately attracted by its costumes, flavors and music. She quickly learns Hindi, she wears a bindi and she attends the Krishna festival. Elizabeth is intrigued by the local statues, idols, rituals and dances. She wants to become Indian, to be part of the community.

Through Elizabeth’s eyes, the western spectators immerse themselves into a land of mysticism, exoticism and poetry. This is, however, only one reading of India. The other side of the story portrays a barrel, poor and oppressed, but yet an uncorrupt and moral land.

In a word, a post-orientalist India.

Mumbai, 2018

As the perpetration of Orientalism by ‘Orientals’, Post-orientalism focuses on the contemporary dialectics between Orient and Occident. Besides, it draws attention in particular to the representation of the Orient.

To the orientalist conception that the East is

“something which had been spoken of and about, and most significantly, spoken for, by the West”.

The Post-orientalism looks at a particular angle of the colonial inheritances of power paradigms perpetuated by Orientalism.

The East is not something categorized by the Occident. Nor it is its alter ego. The East is an entity superior to the West; a constructed, spiritual space above the correctiveness of the West.

Albeit drawing inspiration from Orientalism, Post-Orientalism distances itself from the foundational landmark. Orientalism, argues Edward Said, obliges a binary thinking based on the West-East binomial dichotomy.

Post-Orientalism, on the other hand, does not rely on the binaries of ‘India’ and the ‘West’; it exists in a nuanced reading of both.

Varanasi, 2018.

Because while challenging the meta-narratives of Orientalism, post-Orientalism sets up alternative discourses of its own in order to articulate eastern identities, simultaneously deconstructing and reinforcing Orientalism”,

Post-orientalism unwittingly enables ‘new cartographies’ of power and authority.

Therefore, India’s cultural identities become more pronouncedly fashioned by self-representation. It results in a sort of Indian exceptionalism—or, in the framework Lash’s cultural narcissism, in self-absorption, self-love, self-validation.

To reconstruct such self-identities, narratives about the West and the colonial past need to be created anew. Bollywood cinema is a privileged locus for this narration in post-liberalization India.

It is a site to articulate experiences and anxieties, and to negotiate transitions. Lagaan: Once upon a time in India is one unambiguous locus of this Post-orientalist identity negotiation.

From a Post-orientalist perspective, Lagaan, Once upon a time in India embodies an opportunity.

That is, the opportunity to reverse the gaze of observation. It is not about the experience of the Brits in India. Rather, the experiences of Indians in British India. And, more importantly, to create a more desirable and coherent narrative of Indian self-identity.

While lavish landscapes and exuberant colours carefully recreate the atmosphere of both Indian and British quarters, Post-orientalist perspectives tackle Lagaan, Once upon a time in India as the trope of a different India.

India is mainly recast as a colonized nation suffering from acute poverty, a victim of oppression and exploitation where martyrdom and memory have value.

This imaginary takes shapes through a variety of intertwined content-related as well as stylistic elements: the lack of a star heroine and the vicarious redemption of British colonialists in the case of the former; folk-style music and authoritative narrator in the case of the latter.

Although Bhuvan might appear as the hero, or the protagonist of the story, the movie allegedly lacks a real heroine. Bhuvan solely represents the—courageous and spirited—leader, indispensable pawn “appointed” to put the cricket team together.

From a Post-orientalist perspective, following Buhavan’s actions is not an end in itself, a purely heroic tale; it serves a major purpose.

The construction of a group.

However, it is not a team per se; it’s rather the creation of it. Post-orientalism teaches us that constructing an hybrid, multiethnic “us” contributes to a more palatable depiction of Indian identities. The underlined message is glaring: India is not merely the land of exoticism and spirituality.

Rather, it constructs its identity through the negotiation of its hybridity—by locating, identifying and articulating eastern along with western strands that are interwoven into its past.

In what Homi Bhabha’s has described as a “liminal space” of interlocution and enunciation, the old, orientalist frame is being defined, and further re-defined; perceptions of older stereotypes are challenged, and new, hybrid—and therefore more palatable—forms of Indian identities shaped.

A second element of the post-orientalist reading of Lagaan lies in the vicarious redemption of the British. While in Raj screen fictions the West is often portrayed as a marker of negativity, Lagaan Lagaan, Once upon a time in India vicariously redeems British colonialists by representing white characters facilitating Indian gallantry and heroism.

Two elements—the role of Elizabeth, Captain Russel’s sister, and the British’s attitude towards the game—are clear-cut in these regards. Initially out of a sense of fair play, Elizabeth steps up and genuinely helps the team of villagers. She is thought as a white woman, and as a benevolent benefactor.

The white savior.

Elizabeth and Bhuvan in Lagaan

By emphasizing the colonial experience of a white women as profoundly different from a white man’s one, from a Post-orientalist angle the story of Lagaan points towards historical revisionism.

Lagaan, Once upon a time in India yearns to re-write Indian colonial history.

Elizabeth’s role, combined with Russel’s superiors’ concern that the rules of the game are thoroughly respected, allows for a more balanced view to emerge . The intention behind the redemption of colonialists is clear. To make western characters expiate the guilt of the atrocities committed in the past.

These narratives are perpetuated, in terms of style, by ad hoc stylistic choices. The music genre (inherently folk) and the authoritative narrator. In contrast with the oneiric soundtrack of numerous Bollywood movies, in Lagaan, Once upon a time in India  the song sequences fit in with the action. They help drive the narrative forward.

They yearn to draw the spectator’s attention to the story and its meaning. This goes hand in hand with the choice of an overarching directorial eye. This is expressed by an authoritative narrative voice which introduces, problematizes and concludes the narration, these stylistic features are crucial. As it is shown by the narrator’s closing sentence

“Even after this historic victory… …Bhuvan’s name was lost somewhere in the pages of history.”

they stress the urgency of re-writing Indian postcolonial history. And, they simultaneously cater for political awakening about India.

Due to the discourses of the Internalized Orientalism perpetuated in Lagaan, the movie holds a paradigmatic relevance. Not only is Lagaan, Once upon a time in India a strategy for the reconciliation of a traumatic past; it is also a tool for embracing, reproaching and eventually overcoming the Orientalist framework.

Because it is true that India is snake charmers, carpet vendors, and veiled women.

However, this is only one side of the story.

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