Yashpal Sharma is fondly looking back at the time when he shot for Lagaan in the scorching heat of Bhuj, Gujarat for about six months at a stretch. The film was released 20 years ago on June 15. Many fond memories have remained with him as the unit had become a closely knit family. He remembers well the late night card games that had become a regular group activity after dinner, the early morning bus rides to the location and even the frequent power cuts at the hotel which often left the actors with heavy eyes the next day. But all this was worth because of the accolades the character of Lakha brought Sharma.
“The reception was wonderful. People said the kind of dimension Lakha had, no other character had that kind of depth, apart from the lead actor. I was called the first match fixer in India, and I remember that," says the actor who betrays his own team in the cricket match against the British but sets on the right path later.
He continues, “I consider myself lucky to have got this role. It has both shades. It feels nice when your work is appreciated. For me, Lagaan is right there with the classics like Mother India and Do Bigha Zamin. It was a pathbreaking film. It stood tall above the notions in Bollywood, like an actor’s image cannot change. Or a character cannot wear a dhoti on screen or if a couple of films on cricket have flopped before, it should not be taken up again. No one will watch a film based on villagers and the poor, they used to say. The success of Lagaan was against all these odds. It wasn’t just the hero’s film. All the characters were highlighted. It has set an example in breaking stereotypes. I always say, if you want to learn how cinema is made, watch Lagaan. The kind of passion, team work, management and discipline that went into making it had never been done before."
More from the conversation:
How did you get this role?
I got a pager from the production. Lagaan’s casting was going on for sometime and I got confused as to why they wanted to meet me at this point. I went to their office and Ashutosh (Gowariker) narrated the script for about four hours. I was impressed with his storytelling in that room. I was thinking if I could get Lakha’s role by any chance it would be great. After narration, he said that I am being considered for the same role. I got excited. They asked me to audition at Aamir’s place. 3-4 other characters were also present that day. I was on my way back after the screen test when I got the message that I have been selected. They asked me to come back again for the contract signing. I was thinking about the salary that I could quote for this role. I said to myself, ‘I will ask for Rs 1 lakh and no matter what, won’t do it for anything less’. Although, I would have done it for way lesser amount also as I wasn’t working at that time. Reena (Dutta) said that they are giving Rs 1.5 lakh to every actor due to budget constraints. I negotiated the deal and signed the film for Rs 2 lakh. Later, I got to know that I could have got even Rs 5 lakh had I commanded (laughs).
What were the major challenges for you during Lagaan shoot?
My character Lakha had to pretend that he cannot play cricket and I know the sport very well. This was a big challenge. I was the best catcher in the squad but I had to drop it every time since I was the fixer.
How was the diving catch executed?
From a stool, I had to dive onto a spring board that would suspend me in the air briefly. Aamir was throwing the ball. On the first day, I just wasn’t able to get it right. I was getting a lot of injuries. The timing was not getting right. About 5-6 days later, we tried again. The first take was okayed. Aamir was excited when he went on the monitor and saw it but Ashutosh (Gowariker) insisted that it could be better. We did another take and in the film, the second one is used.
During shoot, did the team have any idea that Lagaan will be such a huge hit?
We never thought it would be nominated for the Oscars but we had faith that this would turn out to be a different film. A great film. We knew it would be distinct from the ones that were being made. I wasn’t experienced much at that time. I had done only 4-5 films. It was my first hit and a turning point in my life.
Your biggest learning from Lagaan?
This film has taught me how to make cinema and how to do it with perfection.
About Aamir Khan?
For Aamir, Mela and Mann had flopped. Lagaan would go on to make a huge difference in his career. During the filming, I was amazed to see how down to earth a person he is. He used to sit with us on the ground and have tea. We used to meet in the evening and after having dinner everyday we sat down to play cards. We used to have fun on shoots. The team was together all the time. The manner in which he kept the team together, it is commendable.
On Ashutosh Gowariker
Ashutosh’s previous two films- Pehla Nasha and Baazi- had flopped. For him, this film was a game changer. It is like his baby. I remember, Lagaan’s premiere was being held in South Africa and we were listening to the theatre reaction from Gaiety Galaxy, Bandra on a phone call. The hooting and the loud noises felt like it was a cricket stadium. Ashutosh and Sunita Gowariker hugged each other and cried that day. The script kept travelling from one actor to another, but everyone kept turning it down. When all the struggle gets paid off, there is joy in that success. Every year, Ashutosh sends us a congratulatory message on the film’s anniversary.