Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in America By Navdeep Manhas

India gained its Independence from Britain in 1947. From the 1800s to this time, Indians were at the whim of the British. Conditions experienced by Indians were similar to particular restrictions given to African Americans through the black codes and Jim Crow laws. One example I will talk about is sharecropping where African Americans were forced to pay unfair interest rates or taxes that took away most or all of the income and left them in debt and poverty. A movie that was released in 2001 called Lagaan shows the struggles experienced by my people and particular scenes in the film correlated very strongly with what we have learned in class about sharecropping and “racialization.”

The producer of the film was Aamir Khan who also was the main character in the film. However, he was presented with the script by his writer-director friend Ahutosh Goawriker, whose father’s experience the film was based on. Khan declined producing the film at first because it went against everything Indian movies generally were like. “First, period films don’t work. Second, sports films don’t work, either. Third, we have British actors speaking English. And finally, the director is not a success” (Sachdev, n.d.). However, the script stuck in his mind and brought his whole family to tears and he eventually gave in to producing it.

The meaning of “Lagaan” itself is “Taxation” and the film itself is set in the Victorian period of India’s colonial “British Raj”. My people were forced to work on their own farms that pretty much weren’t their farms. What I mean is that they owned the land before the British came but it no longer really belonged to them afterwards. After farming, a whole village had to produce a certain amount of goods to give to the raja who then turned over half to the British rulers that were designated to rule that area. This can be related to what African Americans experienced. African Americans were dragged out of Africa to do forced labor here and pretty much built this country. I remember learning in a history class that the great irony of American independence was that America got it on the backs of slave, forced, labor. So in other words, the Africans pretty much built the booming cotton economy and other plantation based economies. One perspective of looking at this is that since the Africans did all the work, they should least get more profit. We should have gotten a lot more of the profits from farming since it was our labor and work that made it all possible but that was taken away from us like it was from the Africans and instead left us both in debt.

The film story is set in a small village of Champaner during the height of the British Empire in India in 1893. This period was significant to African Americans because they were suffering from similar circumstances of white oppression. African Americans were at the mercy of political exploitation and forced labor by the whites. For example, they could be thrown in jail if they didn’t have a job just so they could be forced to do labor (e.g. Chain gangs) (PBS, 2014). Africans were looked at differently because of increased racial segregation brought about by the Black Codes and the Jim Crow Laws. There were types of segregation that were not based on the law and types of segregation based on the law. Africans were expected to sit in the back of the bus or drink from particular water fountains. There was also a corrupt nature by whites during the time, practicing unfair housing segregation and other exploitative acts(PBS, 2010). This relates to how us Indians were treated in the movie. The Indians, living in their homeland, were viewed as outsiders by the British people ruling the area during the time. They were not aloud to sit in the same areas, as whites in the movie like during the cricket match when Aamir had to sit on the ground while the white woman sat with an umbrella on an actual bench. I feel this is pretty representational of white attitude during the time, “othering” both Indians and Africans based on differences in skin color and sense of general superiority. The film shows the insanely high taxes that were required from the people and the pure exploitative corruption mirrored what the Africans under the black Codes and Jim Crow era experienced. There was one particular scene I remember really vividly. Aamir Khan, the village representative, went to the British estate to drop off the crops required as tax and went back home. Later that day, British officers came on horseback claiming that they did not “receive” the required taxation payment via crops. Most Indians had not gone to school in the village, representative of village Indians everywhere, so they were not about to argue. In the end they were required to give what little they had left and their tax for next month increased because of “insufficient payment”.

Another scene that was representative of what we learned about what Africans had to deal with directly related to sharecropping. In the movie, the scene was showing an all sunny day but eventually clouds came and it started raining and all the village people started dancing. This was because the long drought had ended and their crops could finally grow. They were at the mercy of the environment to help with their growth like the Africans were under sharecropping. If the land they were provided with was not sufficient for growth of crops, they were pretty much screwed because the taxes would keep coming but their rate of production would be low driving them into debt in something called debt peonage. Their debts piled up on top of each other because the amount of money required in taxes was way higher than their actual production of crops (Black Codes, n.d.). The scene I mentioned in the previous paragraph is a prime example of this in the film.

I feel like Lagaan was created as a sort of anniversary of independence. It embodied the fighting nature of the Indians and how they were not wavered by the British Raj in India. It was representative of what village life was like under the British rule, being subject to the whims of the whites and being oppressed nonstop through manipulation without regard of how the Indians felt. I feel like it is as important now as it was in 1893 because it shows the struggles that we endured and is a precursor that lights up conversation about what we are struggling with today. A prime example of this is the whole country of India suing Britain for a crown jewel worth over 150 million dollars that was basically stolen from India in the 20th century, and the emotions associated with it because of it being an important artifact to our personal history.

This movie relates heavily to what I learned in this course about African Americans. Although two different races, Africans and Indians went through some of the same struggles. As seen and discussed above, Indians had to deal with debts piling up as in the movie when and Aamir and his village were not able to pay the quarterly taxes and it just added on to their bill like a tab in a bar. This concept was very familiar with African Americans after slavery where they farmed land they were given and had to pay a tax to who they were renting the land from so that they controlled what happened on the land but at the same time did not have the freedom to do what they wanted with their money. Often the land was not able to bare enough crops for various reasons (like the when the drought in Lagaan happened) but the taxes never stopped so the taxes piled on as payments Africans were required to make. This was often the case with Africans under the Black Codes, specifically sharecropping and it was known as Debt Peonage.

Another thing that could relate was when the whites tried to “separate” themselves from other races. This was common under the Jim Crow laws where blacks and whites were “separate but equal” so black people had to sit on the back of the bus, drink and go to separate bathrooms from whites, etc (PBS, 2010). It was a mode of addressing their superiority as I mentioned earlier. In the movie, I saw this was supported as Indians living in the villages were addressed condescendingly as “villagers”. The tone it was spoken in and the way they addressed the Indians could easily cause one to see that they were viewed as only mere peasants.

The reason I picked this topic was because it strikes home close to my heart. My dad’s side of the family was all farmers and experienced this oppression and tyranny first hand. They were required to give a certain amount of their crops as a sort of tax payment. My dad told stories of how the people would struggle to pay the taxes and would see their debts piling up. This relates directly to the experiences village people experienced in Lagaan and indirectly relates to experiences African Americas experienced under the Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes.

Black Codes. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

Chain Gangs – SLAVERY by Another Name. (2014). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

Jim Crow Laws. (2010). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

Sachdev, H. (n.d.). Aamir Khan of ‘Lagaan’ (Movie). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

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