A one-rupee coin engraved with Queen Victoria’s face is spinning. It continues to spin for a few seconds, accompanied by rapt silence in the soundtrack. The film begins, literally with a bang, with a loud thud on the percussions. Gradually, a rolling rhythm mimicking the spinning motion of the coin fills the soundtrack. Music is slavishly duplicating an action and its pace in the visual. The spin slows down, coin loses its balance and falls on a surface revealing the picture and the text engraved on the coin — the image of the Queen and the text “Victoria Empress”. With a pronounced solo trumpet melody that leads the bombastic Majesty Theme, the sepia hued surface is tilted towards us revealing the Indian map as it was cartographed in the period the story of the film happens — 1877.
A solo trumpet continues to play the majesty theme in its entirety when the title of the film “Lagaan – Once Upon a Time in India” expands to occupy the entire screen space. The title appears to have been sculpted out of the map behind, which has now morphed into a bare sketch of the boundaries of a vast, dry and cracked land surface; there is no green to be seen anywhere on the map, the whole country seems to be affected by drought — the underlying problem that would trigger the core conflict later in the film. The title Lagaan (Tax) is shown in Hindi and Urdu, when precisely an authentic Indian spiritual fervour is appended to the soundscape with layers of crashing cymbals and chiming temple bells.
The majesty theme represents the British in the score throughout the film. The instrumental track “Lagaan – Once upon a time in India”, titled after the film and released as part of the film’s original soundtrack, opens with a bold proclamation of the main Majesty theme. In India, a film’s original song-soundtrack is released months before the release of the film. It does sometimes come with a cue or two from the film’s score, and that means any discerning cinephile or film music enthusiast who heard the music several times before the release of the film would anticipate the whole track as it was presented on CD to be played in the opening title sequence.
Title music in Lagaan, instead of lethargically playing out as it was recorded for the soundtrack release, diligently follows the characteristics and moods emphasized through the array of material objects from the British era that appear one after the other in the titles. It helps the composer that the credits footage has an inherent energy, a sense of drama, a quiet narrative of its own and isn’t merely a slide show of static images of the objects.
The opening credits sequence in Lagaan is designed as a primer to the world and times of the film’s story. It is an extradiegetic tool that exists outside the realms of the film’s universe, but it can be used inventively in myriad ways to setup the context of the main narrative. In Lagaan, it is a show-reel of materials, objects, symbols, shapes and artefacts from the era when British ruled India, the era in which the film’s drama is about to unfurl. It is used as a trick to pull the audience out of their modern realities and gently nudge them into the reality of Lagaan.
A decorated silk-cloth fan is gently moving as if waved by a fan-bearer standing by the side of a Maharaja (the King) at the throne. Though the property here doesn’t symbolize the British, an unmistakable English melody, the Grace Theme, plays on woodwinds and is accompanied by a zen-like Harp riff suggesting the tenderness and grace in the waving motion of the fan. Grace theme would be played in its entirety later again during the introduction of one of the main characters whose kindness and empathy would change the course of the narrative.
After the calming and caressing English chamber piece, the score tonally shifts to a darker zone. Muted yet turbulent rhythms, wily low-pitched flute motifs and short bursts of tense phrases on low-pitched strings play to the images of the objects — Commander’s pith helmet, Queen Victoria’s portrait, the royal sceptre and the crown — that are emblematic of the ruthless, arrogant and oppressive English men, as they are portrayed in the film. With the first half of the musical piece representing the angel in the British and the second half the demon, the opening title sequence serves to set the entire narrative arc of the film upfront and drops hints of what is about to come.
Lagaan is a story set in India and about people of India but there are no Indian strains anywhere to be heard in the score underneath the elaborate and aesthetically constructed opening credits. Ashutosh Gowariker, the director of the film says in the documentary Chale Chalo – The Lunacy of filmmaking, made on the making of Lagaan, that he, in hindsight, believes that the English characters brought a certain authenticity to the milieu and era depicted in the film. Filmmaker and composer must have thought that it would be most appropriate to open with English orchestral music instead of classical Indian melodies and folk rhythms, for it is with the realistic depiction of the physical world of British in Colonized India Lagaan sets itself apart from all the other contemporary Indian films.
When Ashutosh Gowariker and A. R. Rahman collaborated again for the film Swades (Homeland), Ashutosh asked A. R. Rahman to compose an original title music that is not a derived, instrumental version of the other songs in the film. This doesn’t happen often in Indian films. Most Indian films have opening titles running anywhere between three to five minutes and the music is usually the instrumental version of one of the songs — songs with voices singing verses — of the movie’s song-soundtrack, or an arranged instrumental suite of the main melodies of multiple songs from the film.
In Swades the title cue isn’t intended to consolidate the whole narrative of the film in a few minutes. It is a catchy accordion tune that would also be the central musical motif of the film’s score, the various orchestral variants of which would be used throughout the film. I still remember the electrifying effect the music had when a velvet white screen spat the title Swades in many different Indian languages with the title music playing along, aloud. Here, the titles are accompanied by a hip and peppy tune and a slow addictive rhythm, and is devoid of any clichéd tone of nationalism in its melody or soundscape. You could dance to the DJ mix of the Swades title music in a pub.
The music in the opening title sequence serves different purpose in different films, and it is entirely up to the filmmaker to use the buffer screen time in the beginning of the film in a way that best serves the ensuing narrative.