Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India – The Portrayal of British Colonialism in India Cinema

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India – The Portrayal of British Colonialism in India Cinema

[Mohd Imran is a Lecturer at Faculty of Shariah and Law, Villa College Maldives. He teaches International Law in LLB and LLM programs offered by the University of the West of England, Bristol at Villa College (Twitter: @imranmohd288).]


Recently, the S.S. Rajamouli-directed film RRR became a subject of intense discussion because of its portrayal of the British enemy. Among other things, RRR has been applauded by Indian and other postcolonial audiences for showing the valor of freedom fighters against the British. British colonialism has been one of the major themes of Indian cinema. From Mother India and Naya Daur to Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Mangal Pandey, and Gandhi, Indian cinema has vividly portrayed the struggle for swadhinata (independence) and swaraj (self-rule). These movies, however, have captured only limited aspects of British colonialism such as violence, maladministration, culture, and struggle for freedom. Indian movies based on colonialism expose colonialism and racism as structures which promote what Edward Said defines as “the difference between the familiar ‘us’ and the strange ‘them’.” But no movie is as revealing about the dynamics of colonialism as Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Lagaan from now on) with its depiction of the most important aspect of colonial legal administration, i.e., Lagaan or land tax

India has been an agricultural economy; thus, land tax was one of the greatest sources of revenue for the Empire. The legal aspects of colonialism, despite colonialism being an important subject for third world cinema, are often overlooked. The literature relating to popular culture and international law also gives little attention to the culture of anti-colonial resistance in art, music, and cinema. In this blog, I examine the depiction of British involvement in agrarian policies in Lagaan. I argue that to generate greater revenue and extend their control over newer territories, the British codified laws, created military alliances, and set up courts. Priority was given to laws relating to property and commerce as these were the greatest source of extracted wealth for the British. 

Lagaan & Colonialism

Set against a realistic background, the Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan (2001) (directed by Ashutosh Gowariker) combines two Indian obsessions: cricket and the colonial past. The movie is set in Champaner, a small village, during the British Raj. The villagers are unable to pay the annual taxes imposed by the British because a drought has destroyed their agriculture produce. The antagonist Captain Russel, head of the British cantonment, challenges the village to beat the English team in a cricket match, failing which the entire province will be charged three times their share of annual tax. If the team of villagers, led by the protagonist Bhuvan, succeed in the match, their taxes and those of entire province will be revoked for three years. Cricket, in this movie, is the primary vehicle for resistance to colonial rule. Within the Anglophone colonial and postcolonial culture, cricket occupies a signal place. 

In Lagaan, Indian farmers take center-stage, emerging as modern citizens asserting their right to self-determination when their own king has proven unable to help them. Nissim Mannathukkaren argues that the movie absolves the role of provincial king in the oppression of farmers by centering the British as the “real enemy” while the king also gets a share from the land tax given by the farmers. He further argues that in Lagaan “the other becomes defined as foreigner, i.e., the white coloniser.” But the “other” that defines the subaltern’s self-consciousness, both historically and in the film, is not only the white outsider: it is equally the provincial king. The TWAIL historiography of international law also seems to have missed this aspect.

Codification of Laws

The narration at the beginning of movie sets up two important issues: the main source of revenue for the British Raj and its efforts to expand that revenue which lie in the agrarian policies and military alliance with princely states. The narration goes:

The British protected the domain of the king from neighboring attacks. They also promised the other kings protection from this king. Owing to this double-dealing, the British collected taxes from several kings paid by every farmer in the country. The kings would keep one share and give the rest to the British. In this way, the British fist grew iron strong. Thousands of villages across the country the farmers of Champaner toiled on empty bellies and paid taxes to the king every year.

To begin with codification of law, the political and constitutional involvement of British East Indian Company (BEIC) began with the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765. The BEIC was granted the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor from the eastern province of Bengal-Bihar-Orissa. The Permanent Settlement of Bengal (1793) was an agreement between the BEIC and Bengali landlords to fix revenues. It was agreed that the landlords would have perpetual and hereditary rights over the land, so long as they paid the fixed revenue to the Company. This Settlement was first introduced in Bengal, then Bihar, and later to the southern districts of Madras and Varanasi. Law has been an important instrument of British colonialism. Tirthankar Roy has eloquently argued that the codification of commercial law in British India was influenced more by the commercialization of the nature of State. Thus, the laws were not necessarily codified to remove the defects of the existing laws but to establish a legal system favourable to and amendable at the hands of the British. This is also evident when we see the British making changes in the rules of the game. Carl Schmitt claimed that a meaningful imperialism is its ability to determine the content of political and legal concepts. Thus, in the movies, the British team complains about bowling style of Boli, a player in villager’s team. On finding that there was no written rule on the bowling style to support their claims, the British umpires decided to write some rules after the match. Similarly, the British ensured that the “content of political and legal concepts” would have a British origin. For instance, the policy of Doctrine of Lapse adopted by the BEIC and prominently used by Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of BEIC, provided that on the death of a native ruler having no natural heir to succeed, his/her State will automatically annex to the territory of the Company though the right to adoption by a king or queen was matter of “personal law” allegedly left untouched by the British. 

In 1797, the British Parliament recognised the Company’s authority to make a regular Code affecting the rights of persons and property of the natives of India and others amenable to the Provincial courts. The adjudication of matters relating to property was so central to the Company’s colonial administration that they found a place in the earliest legislation of the Company. For example, The Plan of Warren Hasting (1772) provided that the President and Committee of the Company should exclusively try the disputes concerning the right of succession to Zamidarees and Talookdaris. The plan also contained a significant provision of substantive criminal law, viz., punishment for dacoity. Thus, matters of trade, tribute, and tax were governed under English laws. 

Military Alliance and Colonial Investment

The creation of a subsidiary alliance in 1798 was another step towards weakening powerful kingdoms, Mughal, Marathas etc., and taking over the small Indian states. In this alliance, princely rulers were forbidden from negotiating treaties with any other Indian ruler without first making inquiries to Company officials. They were also forbidden from maintaining any standing armies. Indian princely states were instead protected by the troops of the British and paid for their upkeep. After the revolt of 1857, all the territories owned by the BEIC were transferred to the British Crown under the Government of India Act 1858. However, the annexation of territories within and beyond India continued.

Sornarajah writes that in the 18th and 19th centuries, investment was largely made in the context of colonial expansion. Such investments were protected under the integrated colonial legal systems and imperial powers. Martti Koskenniemi, similarly, argued that trade in potentially hostile territories required investment in factories and fortifications that might not be forthcoming unless the investors were guaranteed monopoly rights. These investments were protected under the integrated colonial legal systems and imperial powers. The power to lobby for such laws would have been necessary as the territories and properties acquired by BEIC were later transferred to the British Crown. These investments were protected by huge tax levied from Indian farmers, zamindars (landowners), and provincial kings also known as ‘drain of wealth’


In general, international law occupies limited space in mainstream cinema, and depictions of colonial legal administration are sparse. The literature relating to popular culture and international law has also given little attention to the culture of anti-colonial resistance in art, music, and cinema. Perhaps the reason for the absence of depictions of colonial legal administration in movies is the complex nature of legal administration and its relative value for post-colonial audience.

The author would like to thank the reviewers and editors of this symposium for comments and corrections. Errors, if any, are attributable only to the author.

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