Lagaan: Elizabeth, More Than Just A Gori Extra

Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), She’s more than just a gori extra.

With the encouragement of theBollywoodFan, I decided to contribute to his Lagaan Week to celebrate the 9th anniversary of the release of the epic film.  In order to develop something that would resemble a worthwhile blog post, I knew I had to re-watch Lagaan, since it had been a couple of years since I’d last seen it.  It was my third time seeing Lagaan, and I enjoyed it even more than I did the first 2 viewings, which I believe speaks to the quality of the film.  In case you don’t already know, Lagaan is about Indian villagers challenged by some British imperialists to a game of cricket, and if the villagers win they would not have to pay the Brits the unfair land taxes, known as Lagaan.   Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) is a one-dimensional scoundrel, and this cruel man offers a wager he believe the Indians will never win.  His naive, yet kind-hearted sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley),  arrives to India and begins to take in the scenes with a curious and open mind.  I love seeing  white people pop up in Indian films, since I can pretend they are me!  I can also think  hey, I can one day break into the Indian Film Industry, see, there’s a white person too! So with this delusional thinking, naturally I was fascinated to see Elizabeth.

Despite not knowing Hindi, she quickly sizes things up and all too soon she witnesses her brother’s  maniacal ways.

I do enjoy seeing the word “Whitey” it the subtitles, so I show it to you a lot in this post, here’s a start:

Lagaan (2001) is the movie that taught me about cricket, a little game I’d previously called gilli danda back in my village in India.

Wait, sorry, no village, no India, I keep loosing track that I’m from America and am not Indian, please pardon me.  When I was in contact with theBollywoodFan about Lagaan week, I said I’d like to take the angle of writing about Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the gori extra since I’m always making note of my white sisters surfacing in Bollywood films;  theBollywoodFan, wise beyond his years, calmly replied, “She’s more than a gori extra,” and I realized he was right!  She is more than your typical gori extra, she not only plays a bigger role, but she also serves to bridge the cultural gap between the different groups, and helps us think, Hey, wait just one minute, not all these Britishers are so bad after all.  When the villagers are watching the game of cricket, Bhuvan ends up catching a ball out in the field which leads to a confrontation with some of the British players, that ultimately develops into the bet being made over the cricket game and the land tax.

Elizabeth realized this bet is unfair since the villagers are sure to lose a game they don’t know when pitted against people who have a full understanding and longtime experience with the game, not to mention endless leisure hours to play since the Indians are toiling away to make them rich.  She sets out to try to right her brother’s wrong by helping the villagers understand the finer points of the game.

So the teaching and leaning begins…

Recruitment: Initially Elizabeth teaches a small group the game, but there’s still the obstacle of establishing a full team who will be up for the extreme challenge.  Finally a diverse group of people are gathered from the village and surrounding areas since they have a common interest in eliminating the unfair tax by their common enemy, the British.

I learned all I need to know about cricket here:

Jealousy: Gauri (Gracy Singh) is a young village woman who has her eye on Bhuvan so it follows that she starts to get concerned about all the time he spends with the white memsahib.

Cultural exchange: Elizabeth helps to teach some of the finer points of cricket to the villagers, and in turn Bhuvan teaches her something about the Hindu legend of Radha & Krishna.

Elizabeth is enamoured by the festival and is even further taken in by Dandiya Raas number  Kaise Na Jale with music by A.R.  Rahman, playback singers Asha Bhonsle,  Udit Narayan, Vaishali.

Confession: As it turns out, Gauri wasn’t far off on her women’s intuition because Elizabeth, who has managed to learn Hindi in a few days, confesses her pyaar love for Bhuvan.  Luckily she’s able to save face since the part where she really lays it on the line is in English, so Bhuvan doesn’t understand, yet I think he may suspect it.

Fantasy: The tune O Rey Chori,  (playback singers Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik, Vasundhara Das) includes Elizabeth’s fantasy of what it would be like if Bhuvan was in her British world, or if she was in his Hindustani duniya.

Elizabeth is caught: A double crossing villager with an ulterior motive  informs Captain Russell that his sister is helping the villagers to learn cricket.  With shame, I admit I did find Captain Russell quite handsome, despite his evil deeds. Do you?

If I can answer for Elizabeth here, I’d tell her brother that it would be the delicious food and the Indian Film Industry that would allow her to turn against her brother, but I suspect she may say something about the cool Dandiya Raas dances and doing the right thing in the face of injustice.
The BIG Game: The stakes are high, and Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan conveys this beautifully here.  I believe Khan is very talented and expressing emotion through his eye, and this is a perfect example. Dekh!  I bet you’re even crying looking at the photos.  I am.

Elizabeth watches the game, worried about the outcome, rooting all the while for the villagers.  I suppose in Indian English one would say she was chewing her brains and taking much tension isn’t it?  In case you haven’t seen Lagaan and don’t know the outcome of the game *SPOILER ALTER*

There are winners and losers. Elizabeth sees the joyful embrace between Bhuvan and Gauri at the end of the match, and instantly understands that her fantasy will never be a reality.

Bittersweet ending: She can’t have Bhuvan, but she can play Radha to his Krishna.

Finally, you may be wondering how all those gori cheerleaders made their way to India, and I’m here to tell you that  Bhuvan and Lagaan are the reason.  When Elizabeth returned to England, she started the  first cricket cheerleading squad, and there after tradition has held that all IPL cheerleaders are to be white only.

And speaking of Lagaan and the IPL, Did you see A. R. Rahman perform at the 2010 closing ceremonies?   

After exploring the part of Elizabeth in Laagan, I am tempted to do a series on the pantheon of gori extra patron saints of Bollywood.

My personal favorite is the character Christina ( Barbara Lindley) from  Purab Aur Paschim (1970).

Opps! sorry, she’s been objectified as only a gori cold be, let me get a better picture of her….Ah, here, that’s better!

And then there’s Katherine (Antonia Bernath) in  Kisna: The Warrior Poet (2005)-yeah, I admit I saw it! So WHAT!?!

Sue McKinley (Alice Patten) of Rang De Basanti (2006); and most recently Sarah (Sarah Thompson) of Raagneeti (2010).

And like all good Bollywood films, allow me to leave you with some inspiration, courtesy of Bhuvan…and the moral of the story is:

This post was so long, time to roll the credits…

For more on Third Annual Lagaan Week: Ninth Anniversary Special, click over to theBollywoodFan-ji’s blog.

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49 thoughts on “Lagaan: Elizabeth, More Than Just A Gori Extra

    • sparkleh-ji,
      Thanks! I think it was just at certain angles, his face looked so nice, it wasn’t a personality thing, just in case you were worried. I liked parts of Kisna too. :)

  1. I loved your post. I must shamefully admit that I never finished watching Lagaan but after reading this now I will have to finish wathing it. I lol and loved your tie in to the IPL cheerleaders. Great job!

    • Cynthia-ji,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I am driven to have the world know the truth about the history of the IPL cheerleaders and how they came to all be white! :)

  2. for a moment I was shocked !! How would you know about Gilli danda!! Then thought, you are back to your previous incarnation :P PunarJanma !! Past life. :D

    ROFLOL you have put small bp logo there. Perfect !!

    and two reasons u go against your brother – haha., perfect. Making us proud :)

    oh and the cheerleaders!! hahahahahaha..

    thanks for sharing the video. never saw that.

    • dunkdaft-ji,
      First off, enjoyed reading your comprehensive post on teh climax of Lagaan, very well done: Now of course I know all about the gilli danda and play it whenever I’m not doing the dandiya raas! Right, I was referring to my previous incarnation, where I was married to theBollywoodFan and you were the pandit who performed the ceremony, you forgot this only!?! ;) Glad you liked the BP logo, I don’t hate the Brittish, it’s that company of theirs that ruined the Gulf that I’m not fond of; I couldn’t resist popping the logo in. :)

  3. Entertaining post Sita-ji, liked your analysis from a “Gori” viewpoint. Cannot wait to read a more detailed post on gori extras in Bollywood.
    Analyzing from a financial viewpoint :-
    1) Could this movie be interpreted as championing the cause of low taxes & less govt. interference.
    2) What would you say to the idea of the Democrats & Republicans holding annual baseball games to decide the level of taxation (instead of all the lobbying/filibusters/hyperactive-debates.
    3) Was there any “match-fixing” involved ? Perhaps we should get an opinion from a Mumbai underworld bookie.

    Hope your taxes never get tripled.


    • Samir-ji,
      Bhai, What a brilliant idea you’ve presented here! Can you imagine some of the potential corruption that wold go into recruiting the players for the teams though? I suspect the Republicans may just buy the Yankees for their team and the Democrats would have no chance. Oh and match-fixing, that’s another thing to consider! Thanks for your very warm sign off, and allow me to reciprocate it; and same to you, may your taxes never get tripled. :)

    • Malind Bhat-ji,
      Namaste! Nice to see you here and yeah, I like all types of Bollywood films from not so great to excellent and everything in between. Nice to see you’ve got a blog too. Hope to see you at one of the events around town soon. :)
      P.S. I STILL have that cribbage board that belongs to…now I’ve forgotten her name, anyway you know. See you soon dost!

  4. Lagaan week?? but it’s suppose to be Govinda week :D

    Great job!! You’re right about Elizabeth. She definitely is more than a gori extra! :)

    Lagaan is an epic film, a legend on its own. I simply love it

  5. Wah! Wah! Fabbosity m’lady!

    I really remember disliking her character at first (me thought her a meddler) but then when I re-watched I learned the errors of my ways.

    Good job! :)

  6. Lol at this post, you know as much of a bollywooddewana that i am, this film rubbed me up the wrong way, it was way too long for my liking, i watched it with a non bolly lover and although she enjoyed it, she was pissed that it went on for so long especially as yo knew it was going to be a happy ending either way. Now before anyone jumps on my throat, i know bollywood films are long but for some reason Lagaan tested my patience and as such its one classic that i might revisit just for the songs if anything, the performances, music, costumes etc are all fab but i just don’t know if i want to sit through it again

    • bollywoodeewana-ji,
      Yeah, I think, if I’m not mistaken, we have the same tastes and liking for the more kitchy vintage masala, so how could I jump down your throat for this only? I will delete any comments against you as there is limited freedom of speech allowed against you my soul bhai of bollywood. ;) With so many movies, there is no need to sit through one that you don’t fancy, unless you want to more fully understand the origin of gorii cheerleaders for the IPL. Cheers to you!

  7. Oh whew. After your post reminded me of the fact that I had to actually write mine, not just think about it, and I dashed it off, THEN I came back to actually read your post thru and thru.

    I wonder if Andrew’ 1-D-ness was further emphasized to make Elizabeth more 3-D, and vice versa. Of course its a bit weird that the siblings had such polar sympathies, but thats cinema magic i guess :) I love you for mentioning Purab aurr Paschim- that has me rofl-ing thru all the UK locations.

    Its always made me very uncomfortable how both in Hollywood and Bollywood, the other side is generally a little sub-human. Im glad for movies like Lagaan, Kites and now Rajneeti that have somewhat changed that in Bollywood, and for House (TV) having done that in the West.

    • shweta-ji,
      Again, really enjoyed your post and thanks for coming back to read. That’s a good point about Andrew’s one dimensional-ness being established to offset and thus highlight Elizabeth’s more compassionate character. Certainly there were people like Andrew to make the East India Company run as it did, but considering Lagaan is such an earnest effort, for him (an a few of the other Brits) to be so extremely and solely evil is rather manipulative cinema, but I still like it. :) It’s easier to tell a story when one develops only 1/2 the characters, right? But obviously in this case and in the case of imperialism, there were a lot of egregious sins, so it’s not far off to have this type of treatment. The great thing about Lagaan was how many of the characters were so well developed, and since the story is essentially about the Indian cricket players, we get to see more of the nuances and aspects to them. Let’s do a remake: “The Other Lagaan” and show some really nice things that Captain Russell did…oh wait, there probably weren’t too many at all. ;) I didn’t get to see Kites (yet) but did catch Rajneeti and really enjoyed it. It had so many excellent actors and parts!

  8. Monumental post and research. Bollywood has come a long way from when they used to just stand around while the hero or heroine sang and played the piano at the party. Now they actually dance as extras!

    Take care. How was Rajneeti by the way?

    • Anirban-ji,
      Many, many thanks to you for calling this research “monumental” and I take this as a great compliment since you are a scientist. I recommend Rajneeti, between Arjun, Nana, Manoj, and Ranbir (and others) you just can’t decide who is more evil, a true buffet of villains, which I just loved. Rampal’s revenge scene was fantastic! Watch for the blood! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Sita-ji,
    Wah wah! Wonderful post! I’m glad I’m not the only one who forgets her actual heritage every once in a while, but then I feel like I’ve been adopted so I don’t think we’re too far off, na?

    I think Elizabeth is one of my favorite gori characters in Hindi cinema (I also really liked Alice Patten), and, even though you know she’s not going to win her Hindustani prince, you kind of want to root for her! I think one of the reasons I like her so much (and it’s totally superficial) is because she is not blonde! There are way too many blonde extras, etc in films. Kismat Konnection drives me crazy for that!

    Also, I have to say, that while I did not like his character at all, I do find Paul Blackthorne kind of dashingly handsome in this, so you’re not completely alone.

  10. I love the way you’ve done that. Really fun read. I haven’t watched Laagan in a long time. Brought back memories. I love the link to the IPL cheerleaders…hahaha

    What is the name of the captain brother? I feel I have seen him somewhere.

    • filmizest-ji,
      Thaks for stopping by to comment. I was happy to bring the true history of the IPL cheerleaders’ origin to light. Not sure, only know that Captain Andrew Russell is listed as being played by Paul Blackthorne.

  11. Sita-ji! I don’t know where to begin with any discussion, here. Really enjoyed your post, thanks so much for your delightful contribution! We haven’t seen anything to dismiss your gori cheerleader theory, have we? Love the tie in, here. I guess there had to be an outlet to offset the restraint Elizabeth illustrated toward the end of the film, and the cheerleading school might’ve been it! :)

    Speaking of Eliza and Captain Russell, I find it interesting that my most often-quoted lines from the film come from them. But perhaps that might be because they’re so high-level (compared to, say, some of Bhuvan’s stuff). So many well-delivered lines left and right throughout, na?!

    “Don’t say it!”
    “This is unfair!”
    “So is life.”
    “Those old hats want to teach me how to run the show.”
    “They’ve lost their sense of adventure.”
    “What’s wrong with a little fun and games?”
    “What did you say? Aah, stupid silly game? Hmm?”
    “What’s so special about them…?”

    So very many, so routine yet so fitting here…

    • theBollywoodFan-ji,
      Thanks for encouraging me to do the post, aur nawab, nothing can disprove my IPL cheerleaders being founded by Elizabeth, since it is a fact! I am embarrassed to say that I failed to include the gori extra from Salaam-E-Ishq in this post. I’ll have to amend it to repair the damage of this oversight. Thanks for the list of quotes. :)

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  13. Hi there, Finally read this post and I enjoyed it very much. I haven’t seen Lagaan in ages, must see it again.
    My favorite part of the movie is the song Radha Kaise na Jale because Gracy dances so well and Elizabeth had this look of uncertainity/awe/love all mixed up.

    • natsan-ji!
      Thanks for coming to the blog to read and comment! :) You’re right about Elizabeth’s response to Gracy/Gauri’s dancing, it’s awe, and envy, respect, and confusion. It’s a fantastic scene, innit? :) I wish Gracy Singh were in more movies. Do you know of any that you’d recommend out of her filmography?

  14. Thank you for this post about Elizabeth’s significance! I recently saw Lagaan for the first time with my family and completely loved Elizabeth’s character.

    The film crew portrayed her so beautifully, floating in on-camera with her white dress, yet her personality was so sweet and helpful that I just loved her.

    Some “gori” (I didn’t realize that was the word for white-girls-in-Indian-movies) extras in Bollywood movies I tend to dislike, because they can, pardon the expression, come across as trampy and brash? I liked and identified with Elizabeth’s sweet, wholesome nature.

    I have to say Lagaan was the first Indian movie where I felt like I was at a disadvantage in viewing it because of my cultural background as an American! I was rooting so hard for Elizabeth! And in the end, I thought Bhuvan honestly *did* feel something for her, despite what he told Gauri. It’s kind of sad that Elizabeth never married, but I know it was to prove a point.

    So…thank you for backing up my opinion that Elizabeth matters!

    • Danielle B.-ji,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to thoughtfully comment! Yes, gori/gora means white. Remember the word play in the movie when Bhuvan was looking for Elizabeth and said he was looking for the gori, and then his love interest Gauri show up saying “Gauri’s here” and then there’s sort of a “Who’s on first?” moment.
      I agree that Bhuvan did have feelings for Elizabeth too, but knew it would never work, which is exactly why I am not married to Aamir Khan. ;) I think both Purab Aur Paschim (1970) and Salaam-E-Ishq (2007) which I failed to include in this post yet (maybe I’ll amend it) both have positive gori portrayals.

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  16. Me again? Lagaan was a great movie no doubt, I loved the evil captain too. But then the film started a trend of movies intended to be Oscar and NRI (non resident indians) impressive films. Miss the crudeness of the earlier films! For instance an early Aamir Khan film called Andaz Apna Apna. The film has greatest fun lines that simply cannot be translated. Very language specific wordplay. Although, as you put it, in a chewing you brain, style subtitling can create a great fare too. It is a farce comedy throughout and a cult in its genre, but why most people would never it make a film like this one is that it would find no international takers. That is too much grumbling over a funny film innit?

    • ashwini prashant-ji,
      You make a great point about specific language play that can’t be translated effectively to someone who is not a native speaker, or at least a very sophisticated learner of a second language. I did see Andaz Apna Apna a while back and enjoyed it, but only to a point, since I’m sure I missed a lot of the language specific humor. There are international takers, but only people of specific “cult” interest like me and other bloggers and fans of the genre in general. Thanks for the insightful comments. :)

  17. Thanks for following me on escribesindia. The account is for our indian literature-centric ezine but we don’t tweet as much. An Indian Cinema website is currently in the making. It will take at least a year though for even a beta site given the range and the content. So keep in touch i will keep browsing your blog but let me know if you are moving to some place else. Thnx again.

    • Ashwini Prashant-ji,
      Thanks for the update. Keep me posted on the Indian Cinema website that is currently in the making. And thanks again to you for your visits. :)

  18. Love, love, love Elizabeth! I felt so bad for her- it was a bit Les Miserables- esque. However, Gauri was really cute with Bhuvan and they were clearly the ones meant for eachother.

    • Kylie-ji,
      Thanks for stopping in to comment. LOL on “a bit Les Miserables- esque,” good description. You know, theater girl, that comedy tragedy mask thing? ;) Bhuvan and Gauri were indeed the pair with more promise, it was kismat.

  19. We can call Lagaan a classic, can’t we? People will marvel at it in decades to come just as they do Mother India, and not because of its best foreign film oscar nomination. Whenever I tell my English friends that a cricket match takes up around half of this near four-hour movie, I also inadvertently remind myself what a brilliant film this is – because how else (as a non-cricket lover) could I have seen it countless times.

  20. ok i stumbled upon this, seeking solace in your blog from the civil unrest thats troubling my mind, nudge nudge wink wink say no more ( awfully British of me that, eh. ha!) this is a bit of a rant, so forgive me. well this film……this film….this film right here….made me feel hot. and vicariously sweaty. yes I said it, sweaty. not only was it too long, it was boooooring to me.
    I thought Gracy Singh was plain, everyone in the village had a layer of dirt on them ( notwithstanding the obvious tannage on AAmir). and having worked at Lord’s cricket ground, coming from a family of elder males obsessed with the game, I hated it. It just reminded me of the million times my Dad would hijack the tv no matter how we begged or how engrossed we were, to switch the channel to some test match. arrrrgh, my tortured childhood. ok rant over, as you were.
    P.s The loverly gori lady was possibly the best thing in this film, even though I had to pause this film three times and talk myself into finishing it, she was half decent.

    • Prima Londongirlinthe D Mojet-ji,
      I’m so sorry about all the rioting in London and other areas of the UK, it’s terribly sad. I’ve been listening to the BBC coverage of it this evening.

      OK, so let’s break for Lagaan. :) I hold your dad responsible for giving you PTSD over television hijacking for cricket. I was embarassed by this song, embarassed for goris worldwide when she sang, “I am in looooooove. I am in loooooove!” Watch it now, to take your mind off the rioting, but don’t let if cause you to riot, because it’s a fine balance. :)

      You’re so kind it trying to seek solace in my blog from the civil unrest, the highest compliment ever! xoxo ☮, ❤

      p.s. I like your line of thought–>bad stuff in London–>rioting now—->more bad stuff in London–>MY DAD WATCHING CRICKET! Test matches! Yuck!–>Cricket movie, bad, Lagaan—->But it’s Bollywood, so neutralized, sort of, but not. :)

  21. got a smile with this. yeaaah corny gori she was eh!! but the male singer is who, sonu Nigam! i loooove him sooo much. its funny that sonu seems to always do Aamirs songs and SRK’s, It confuses me a little. the song is very pretty, aside from the Andrew lloyd webber ish Elizabeth bit, i like it. still hate the film but Rehman/rahman can pretty much do no wrong. what will they do when he passes away.?? probably remix his old stuff, nahein? lol

  22. Thanks Sitaji for your good wishes following the riots here. I’ll check out the link you mentioned re Lagaan.

    Forgot to mention I first heard about Lagaan when Aamir Khan turned up (unexpectedly) at my university – I was taking Rachel Dwyer’s ‘Indian Cinema & Societies’ course. He even asked if any of us students with native Hindi/Urdu would be willing to help the English actors brush up on their accents. Can you believe I was so devoted to my studies that I ignored the opportunity to leave my own little mark on Lagaan!

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