20 years of Lagaan: Yashpal Sharma recalls shooting for iconic flying catch scene

The actor opens up about Ashutosh Gowariker's epic musical sports film, the first project that put him on the map.

Keyur Seta

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001) released to fanfare on 15 June 2001. The epic musical sports film instantly won over the masses, taking the box office by storm despite being released alongside the Sunny Deol-starrer Gadar: Ek Prem Katha

The Aamir Khan film, which transformed cinema halls into cricket stadia where the audiences witnessed peasants challenge the might of the British Raj in the late 19th century, became India’s official entry to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category. 

As the film completes 20 years today, Yashpal Sharma looked back on the project, which put him on the map. 

Yashpal Sharma

For the artiste, the film is associated with a lot of firsts. “I worked with a big star for the first time in the film. This was also the first film where I saw discipline being practised from the pre-production till the shoot. It was the first time I played an important role in a big film and became a part of an Oscar-nominated film. I think this is the first film to be shot for five and a half months on a trot,” Sharma told Cinestaan. 

“This film also saw me meet people like AR Rahman, Saroj Khan, Raju Khan and Nakul Kamte for the first time,” said the actor. 

Recalling the casting of the film, Sharma said that he used to live in a small room back then. “I had a pager; not many people had mobile phones then. I got a message and went for the audition. Over there, Ashutosh Gowariker narrated the story for close to four hours while moving around the room. He had asked nobody to disturb him.” 

The story of Lagaan unfolds in a North Indian village beleaguered by drought.vIf things weren't bad enough for the lead character, Bhuvan (Khan), and the rest of the villagers, their cruel British overlords increase taxes. 

Eventually, the British captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) challenges the villagers to defeat the rulers in a game of cricket if they want the taxes to be abolished. But if should they fail, the taxes will be increased threefold. Bhuvan agrees but the villagers don’t know the first thing about the game. However, the villagers receive timely help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). 

Eventually, they win against all odds much to the embarrassment of Russell.

Lagaan featured Gracy Singh, Raghuvir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Aditya Lakhia, Daya Shankar Pandey, Akhilendra Mishra, Raj Zutshi, Rajesh Vivek, Suhasini Mulay, Rajendra Gupta, Amin Hajee and Pradeep Singh Rawat. 

When Sharma was offered the chance to play one of the villagers, Lakha, he was thrilled. “That was the role I had liked during the narration,” he said. “After Aamir Khan, this was the second-most prominent character. I instantly agreed but they said I would have to give an audition. I was game for it.” 

After giving the audition at Khan’s residence [he wasn’t present then], Sharma received the message about his selection before he reached home. 

“I was asked to meet Reena Duttaji the other day. I was amazed! After going through the grind for a few years, I didn’t expect such a fair casting to happen. I used to think it happened only if you know people in positions and that talent was not valued here,” he said.

Following this, Sharma started wondering how much money should he ask for. “I was thinking of Rs1 lakh. People from villages like us never go beyond that figure. I then thought I should be fine with even Rs80,000 or even Rs50,000. What if they refuse the role? Eventually, I decided I would just do it for whatever amount.” 

Rachel Shelley

As soon as he met Dutta, she said the makers were willing to pay him Rs1.5 lakh. “But I don’t know what happened to me and I said that I would take Rs2 lakh at least,” said Sharma laughing. “She just said, 'Okay, sign here'. I was amazed at what had happened!” 

Sharma’s is initially a traitor who is loyal to the British team. He purposely plays poorly. Sharma said he was good at playing cricket but because of his character trait, he had to learn to play poorly. “I was the best catcher in the unit. But the problem was that I had to drop catches repeatedly and not play well. I had to play like a novice,” he said. 

Later in the film, Lakha has a change of heart. This transformation leads to his character’s biggest moment when he executes a stunning flying catch. The scene looks fantastic but, Sharma said, it took a lot of effort and retakes. 

“I had to climb on a stool and jump on a springboard and dive horizontally,” he said. “The dive was happening properly but I was missing the timing of the catch. Aamir Khan was throwing the ball. I had to give around 24 takes. My hands and legs got hurt. They then decided to do it later.” 

After 4-5 days, they tried again and the first take turned out to be fine and Aamir Khan was impressed. “However, Ashutosh felt it can be better than this. I did the second take which was even better and that is the one retained in the film,” said Sharma. 

The most challenging aspect for the makers was to shoot the match with the local crowd that numbered 5,000. “There were hidden cameras. You would be surprised to know that they hadn’t used lapel microphones anywhere. The film is in sync sound with very few portions dubbed. We used booms or hidden microphones. This is [sound designer] Nakul Kamte’s genius,” said Sharma.  

Over the years, we have heard how Khan helped keep the crowd under control by singing ‘Aati Kya Khandala’. But Sharma revealed that others were also involved in this endeavour. “Apoorva Lakhia was the assistant director. He had a large role to play in keeping the crowd under control along with his assistants Kiran Rao and Reema Kagti,” said Sharma. 

The actor is still in awe of cinematographer Anil Mehta and the production team since, according to him, shooting the cricket scenes was extremely challenging. “Anil Mehta is incredible. As a person, he is like a saint and has such a good nature. He knows how to shoot films based on their genres perfectly. The colour scheme is muddy because it’s a rural film. Anil Mehta and the production team deserves a salute,” he said. 

Interestingly, during the five-and-a-half-month shoot, the unit would party on Saturday and enjoy a day off on Sundays. “Aamir used to call us to play cards to maintain the team spirit. So in all, we used to only shoot, play cards and sleep in these months,” he said. 

The unit also had to get accustomed to extreme weather conditions. When the shoot started in January, the temperature was minus two degrees. “When we finished shooting on 17 June, it had gone up to 48 or 49 degrees,” said Sharma. 

Sharma didn’t expect the crowds in movie theatres to go wild during the cricket match scenes.

When the film was released on 15 June 2001, the Lagaan team was in South Africa to attend its premiere at the IIFA Awards. Satyajit Bhatkal, who shot the film’s making and made a documentary, Chale Chalo, visited Gaiety theatre in Mumbai and recorded the rapturous reaction of the audience. “We were so pleased listening to it,” said the artiste. 

But there were a couple of people who couldn’t control their emotions. “Ashutosh and his wife Sunita wept in a corner. They must have felt the hard work put in in all these years had paid off. They had earlier approached Hrithik Roshan, Salman [Khan] and Shah Rukh [Khan] to play the lead. It all finally ended well,” he said.