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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

A Bug’s Life & Lagaan: Overcoming Oppression

Bollywood and Hollywood are two separate entities in cinema. Whilst they evolve from different countries, they are powerful mediums of entertainment.

Disney and Ashutosh Gowariker Productions’ are two large production houses which present human and soulful narratives to the big screen.

Two such uplifting works from their creations are A Bug’s Life and Lagaan, which are two underdog stories about colonies fighting oppression.

In the 1998-animated film, a misfit and clumsy ant, Flik (Dave Foley), who becomes a nuisance among his community.

He volunteers to search for “tough warriors” to save his colony from greedy and invasive grasshoppers.

However, things get challenging when he, in turn, recruits a group of insects that turn out to be an inept circus troupe.

As for the 2001 epic sports drama, revolves around a small village whose inhabitants, burdened by high taxes, find themselves in an extraordinary situation as an arrogant officer challenges them to a game of cricket as a wager to avoid the taxes.

The narrative spins around this situation as the residents face the arduous task of learning the unknown game and playing for a result that will change their homes’ destiny.

Weather, rain (in particular), forms quite a pivotal aspect to the narratives. In the animated movie, rain is feared by the ants. Whilst it symbolises chaos, but it eventually becomes their saviour and a way to escape the clutches of grasshoppers.

Similarly, in Lagaan, rainfall is celebrated and highly anticipated as it helps the crops to grow. When it ultimately does, this weather marks the liberation from despotism.

Both movies are headlined by visionary male counterparts, who, of course, differ in personalities. On one hand, Flik is ditzy and lacks sharpness.

Whereas Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) is more hot-headed and determined. But the commonality between the dual characters is that they both face scepticism and are condescended by their own people.

Flik and Bhuvan are the ideal underdogs-turned-her examples. Their portrayal of masculinity is not defined by testosterone and gender stereotype, but by grit and determination.

Having said that though, the female roles have been equally supportive. Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) in Lagaan, do not only share a common love for Bhuvan.

They believe in his perspective and his goal, hence, they support and stand by him as a pillar of strength.

Whereas, the only female, who really stands by Flik as a friend, is Dot – a lavender ant, who is also struggling to fit in amongst her peers and faces flack for being a sovereign.

The pivotal female lead, Princess Atta, is shown to be fighting her insecurities in trying to handle the royal responsibilities.

She loves Flik, but her responsibilities and stature prohibit her from completely supporting him… Especially when he goofs up each time.

In the movies, there is a clear distinction between who the heroes and villains are. A Bug’s Life showcases the Ants vs Grasshoppers, then Gowariker film highlights the Indians vs Whites.

Both are also conditioned to an unjustified condition… Double food from the ants and triple taxations from the villagers. The ‘outsiders’ are presented to be these patronising enemies.

Of course – these ‘antagonists’ are also headlined by strong males. In the animated work, Hopper (Kevin Spacey) is the alpha of the otherwise blindfolded gang.

Similarly, Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) is the commanding officer of his Cantonment. Both characters display the attributes of a cold-hearted and wicked tyrant.

In fact, their tyranny also extends to the royal characters who are presented to be the helpless middle-people in this war against oppression.

Lagaan exhibits Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Raja Puran Singh, a privileged sovereign who is undermined by the British and does not really muster the courage to support his people.

The scene where Russell compels him to eat meat in exchange for something gives credence to the British’s harrowing presence.

Comparatively, the Queen and Princess Atta, display integrity and stand by their people more strongly. But as a result, have suffered at the hands of outsiders… Remember how Hopper was planning to squish the Queen?

To combat these baddies, the ‘heroes’ in both movies assemble a group of amateurs to fight for a greater, more serious cause… Be it the Circus bugs or the farmers.

Interestingly, all these amateur ‘soldiers’ possess a virtue which the world would otherwise think of it as being odd or peculiar.

They all use their ordinary and daily tasks as their greatest weapon to fight a battle against a dictatorial power, which is definitely a lesson that can be learnt by all.

Furthermore, there is an onus of unity in both ventures. The films highlight that dictatorship cannot be combated individually, but as a community.

Ultimately, though, one cannot deny that Lagaan chronicles a real bleak chapter in Indian history, which had a ripple effect on society, even today.

Whereas, A Bug’s Life is a ‘fictional’, animated piece of cinema, which is heavily dependent on humour and family viewership. But both movies, are quite serious at their core.

But having said that, these movies teach us that oppression can occur by anyone or anything. The real power is in the undying spirit and unification of a community to battle such cruel powers.

Given today’s environment of the Coronavirus Outbreak, perhaps re-watching these films may just re-ignite our optimism and undying fighting spirit.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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