When thinking about fun ways to spend an evening, I’m guessing very few people say to themselves, “You know, tonight I’d sure like to watch a 4-hour historical epic about cricket—with lots of Bollywood dancing.” And yet, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting, especially if we’re talking about Aamir Khan’s lavish 2001 spectacle, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. Never heard of it before? That’s not surprising. Outside of the Indian community, Bollywood films rarely receive the respect they deserve – particularly when a movie aspires to be more than a gushy, song-and-dance entertainment. Lagaan is much, much more than that: a big, open-hearted, adventure tale that is one of the best teambuilding stories you’re ever going to encounter.
As it turns out, I first heard about Lagaan in 2002, soon after it came out. Out of curiosity, my friend Chip and I rented it from the video store and decided we’d give it an hour. If the film seemed interesting, great—we’d watch up to the half-way point and then finish it the following day. After all, four hours is a long time to sit in front of a TV screen. Well, after the first hour, we were intrigued; after the second we were hooked. By the third, there was no way we weren’t going to finish the movie THAT NIGHT, which of course we did, at approximately 1 in the morning. Who would’ve imagined a historical cricket match could be that riveting!
The story takes place in the fictional town of Champaneer during the British Raj. The villagers, poor to the bone, are faced with an impossible predicament – in the midst of a terrible drought, their British overlords – led by the smug officer Russell (Paul Blackthorne) — are now requiring the Indians pay a double Lagaan (tax). Our hero, the handsome villager Bhuvan (Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan), will have none of it. The town issues a challenge: they will play a game of cricket against the Brits’ veteran team. If Bhuvan’s squad wins, they will be spared 3 years of tax; if they lose, both the town and the entire district will pay the double tax, and most likely starve.
And so ensues what can only be described as “The Bad News Bears Go To India”. As the instigator of the challenge, Bhuvan’s task is daunting; not only must he learn how to play cricket – which is completely new to him – but he must also pull together a team from his fellow villagers, many of whom resent Bhuvan’s staking their lives on a single game. If anyone can do it, though, it’s Bhuvan: muscled, charismatic, clear skinned – sort of a Spartacus for the subcontinent.
Like most great teambuilding stories, the story then proceeds in four stages: Forming-Storming-Norming and Performing. In the first stage, Bhuvan – via much convincing and cajoling — gathers together his team, a motley crew that includes a mute drummer boy (with great strength), a middle-aged doctor, a chicken keeper (with quick hands), a farmer (adept with a sling) a devout Muslim, and Guran – the town’s spiritually-charged, long-haired holyman/mystic. Along the way, our hero also picks up Lakha, a gifted athlete who may also be a spy for the British, and Kachra, a crippled Untouchable (India’s much-condemned, lowest caste) with the dazzling ability to spin the ball as he’s hurling it. Not surprisingly, in the second stage, the team storms away uncontrollably. The chicken keeper and the farmer, traditional enemies, nearly come to blows. The drummer can’t catch a ball to save his life. And no one wants to go near the Untouchable. Eventually Bhuvan sorts out all these issues with his usual bravado and nudges the group towards the norming stage, where they’re actually playing cricket and doing it at a medium level. But will it be enough to beat the Brit’s veteran team? Can they reach the performing stage, where everyone is accountable for their actions and working together? Ah, for the answer to that, you’ll have to sit down and enjoy four, glorious hours of giddy, Bollywood entertainment. Suffice it say that the final cricket match is enthralling – even for people, like me, who have no idea how the game is played. I guarantee that after watching Lagaan, you’ll at least think you understand cricket, which is saying something.
For a Western audience of trainers and business people, Lagaan has deep relevance to our own, work-a-day, team challenges. Like the villagers of Champaneer, you need to start with a charismatic leader, someone who holds up a worthy, daring goal to strive for. You then put together a diverse team, with each member possessing a different skill and talent. Problems inevitably arise but you stick with it, sorting out conflicts and reminding your teammates that the bigger picture is more important than individual conflicts. And eventually, you step up and perform in the big game, leaning on each other’s talents, covering for each other’s flaws, and achieving more than any individual could ever do alone.
And at the end, succeed or fail, you celebrate. Preferably with a big, splashy, Bollywood dance number!