MUMBAI: From its stupendous box office success, an Oscar nomination to convincing his favourites Aamir Khan and A R Rahman to come on board, the journey of "Lagaan" is a memorable one for director Ashutosh Gowariker, who wanted the film to stand the test of time.
"Lagaan" (Tax) follows the story of Bhuvan (Khan), a villager from Champaner, Gujarat, who is challenged by an arrogant British officer, played by Paul Blackthorne, to a game of cricket, as a wager to avoid paying the taxes (lagaan) they owe.
The memorable match that was played on screen was not just about cricket but also of spirit and resolve between the oppressor and the oppressed, a theme which resonated with people universally, the director said.
"When you have the oppressed fighting you want the oppressor to lose, that connected the audiences all over and it does even today.
"Whenever a filmmaker makes a film his first thought is to create something for eternity and something that will be loved by generations (to come), that's the initial thought and ambition. You can make a big box office success but you never know whether it is going to stand the test of time," Gowariker told PTI in an interview.
"Lagaan" also brought together cinema and cricket, the two favourite interests of the country. Theatres had transformed into stadiums," recalled Gowariker.
"It was very overwhelming that people got involved and wanted Bhuvan to win. I wanted to make a film that was loved across India. Within India, if a film is liked in Maharashtra and Odisha, to me, that is a crossover," he added.
The viewers' response in Mumbai's iconic Gaiety Galaxy Cinema was very similar when the film was screened globally for international audience.
"They were screaming and cheering at the climax exactly like the Gaiety audience. I can't get rid of that sound, I remember it even today," he recalled.
But the film's off-screen path to glory was as thorny as the journey of untrained villagers battling against their colonial rulers.
Gowariker wrote about 21 drafts of the story on the lines of dhoti wearing heroes in a period film about a cricket match, which the producers told him then was an "absurd" idea.
"The idea was to create a story of people coming together from different background to fight a common enemy. Instead of one hero, several heroes come together as a team. And what if it is cricket and set in a period and is against the British Raj? It is a non-violent approach and their independence from paying taxes," he said.
The ambitious director also had a dream team he wanted to assemble for the project: Khan as Bhuvan, Rahman for music, Javed Akhtar for lyrics, Bhanu Athaiya for costume, and a host of British actors.
Getting Khan's consent for the film alone took about a year.
Having worked with the actor in his previous directorial "Baazi", Gowariker said the actor takes his time before giving his nod but once he does he owns the film.
Initially, Khan had decided to not produce "Lagaan" and asked the director to find a producer.
"With so many hurdles it became important to come back to Aamir and sit again and do these narrations that he wanted to do just for him to make up his mind that he will not only act but produce it," he said.
From the rousing anthem "Baar Baar Haan", the rain song "Ghanan Ghanan" to the flirtatious "Radha Kaise Na Jale", the soundtrack of the film is an inseparable part of its success.
Talking about roping in Rahman, Gowariker said, he narrated the script to the music maestro for four hours and wanted him to say yes purely on the basis of the story.
"Rahman was a very difficult person to convince. I am glad he understood where I was coming from and how I wanted to approach every song," he added.
With the first cut of the film running for four hours, a romantic sequence between Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) and Bhuvan (Khan) had to be chopped besides other scenes that ended on the editing table.
Gowariker said he is content with the final version of Lagaan, which is 3 hours 42 minutes.
"There is no wish that I could have done it differently. There is no remorse," he said, adding that the scripting process was his most favourite aspect of working on the film.
"The days I spent with Kumar Dave and Sanjay Dayma and K P Saxena on the dialogues in the four walls of a room where we were trying to create something. We didn't know if the film will be made, but there is joy in creating a script like this," the director recalled.
"Lagaan", already a blockbuster at home, also went on to represent India in the best foreign language film category at the 74th Academy Awards.
It was the third film from the country to be nominated in the category after "Mother India" (1957) and "Salaam Bombay!" (1988).
Despite receiving an overwhelming response during the Oscars campaign, Gowariker said he was disheartened when the film didn't win.
"We were very close, everybody liked the movie. At one point, we felt we were going to make it. " Oscar trophy went to Bosnian war film "No Man's Land".