I have a new favorite musical -- and I'm not even a fan of the genre, per se.
It's a nearly four-hour long, epic Bollywood extravaganza about rain-starved Indian peasant farmers in 1893, the cruel colonial British tyrants that oppress them, and the bold, impossible challenge of a winner-take-all cricket match between the two that will determine if the farmers will have their taxes waived for the next three years -- or tripled.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. But the prolific Indian film industry has been cranking out pictures in this vein for years. They know what they're doing and "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" is the fabulous, whimsical, Oscar-nominated culmination of every ambitious, romantic, cinematic and melodious instinct of showmanship that country's studios have ever mustered.
The movie's hero is a charming, handsome, headstrong villager named Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) who is already busy running afoul of the English as the movie opens by hiding in shrubbery and spooking the antelope they're hunting -- not to the keep the animals safe, but just to drive the Brits bonkers.
When Bhuvan later organizes his people against an unfair double-tax, the delightfully starched and snooty Capt. Russell (Paul Blackthorne) recognizes him and offers the aforementioned challenge, sure of a humiliating defeat. The villagers don't know thing one about cricket -- the English bat-and-ball game, vaguely similar to baseball, in which batsmen protect wooden wickets at opposite ends of a pitch from breakneck balls "bowled" at them overhand. But willful Bhuvan accepts the challenge, which makes him persona non grata with most of his own people.
But then come the songs.
In a modest yet spectacular production number that involves his entire village in its energetic Indian beat, our hero fashions a cricket bat and ball from firewood and tries to rally people to his cause. As everyone watches, he sings about how they can't pay the double-tax already imposed, so how is triple any worse? At least this way they have a small chance. He sings and swings while a couple farmers who have decided to give him a chance bowl the ball. The scene crackles with hopeful anticipation. When he misses, all their spirits take a dive, along with the tone of the song. Then Bhuvan cracks the ball all the way into the temple atop a nearby hill. A chorus of cheers erupts and at least some people's hopes are restored.
The music in this film is incredible -- not only hum-able and memorable, but full of dynamic vim and sweeping scope, and the actors embrace the tunes (even the silly ones) with enchanting, infectious jubilation. Some are modest love songs (the village beauty -- played by Gracy Singh, the movie's only bad actor -- is, of course, in love with Bhuvan). Others are grand montages that carry the story through ever-improving cricket practices and the festive meal scenes that follow. Sure, the tunes were clearly not recorded on location. Sure, many of the actors don't do their own singing. But in the case of "Lagaan" it all seems part of the charm somehow.
By the intermission (yes, there is one!), Bhuvan has fielded a team of enjoyably eccentric locals -- a village idiot, a lower-caste cripple, a boisterous, mangy, possibly mad fortune teller (he's my favorite). They've boned up on cricket with the help of Capt. Russell's prim and pretty sister (Rachel Shelley), who considers her brother a right cad for the way he treats the Indian people under his thumb, and they're nervously gung-ho to take on those English devils.
Most of the movie's second half consists of the cricket game -- played over three days as many cricket games are -- which keeps you riveted for the rest of the picture, thanks in part to an exciting soundtrack that gives these scenes the atmosphere of a great kung-fu movie showdown. There is literally never a dull moment, and there are subplots as well. Capt. Russell's humiliated superiors who, while always willing to enjoy a good game of cricket, threaten him with paying the lost tax himself and a reassignment to Africa if his team loses. The region's villagers turn out in droves to cheer Bhuvan's every run and throw fantastic fetes each night no matter how bad the score looks. And there's a turncoat on the Indian team who could wreak havoc or have a change of heart.
The only time "Lagaan's" wonderful spell is broken is during the one tune sung in English by Capt. Russell's sister. As long as you're reading subtitles, you can assume something has been lost in the translation and the lyrics aren't as cheesy as they might seem. When the words are actually in your native tongue, they can lose their magic. But the key to a good musical is that the songs occur naturally within the story, making is seem almost logical that everyday people start singing and dancing. "Lagaan" accomplishes that beyond reproach.
The film has a few other nit-picky problems -- some modern hairstyles, opening and closing narration that is downright annoying, and writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker gets a bit carried away with the finale.
But you don't have to like musicals to love "Lagaan." You don't have to know anything about cricket or Indian history to understand "Lagaan." You just have to be willing to have a great time for four straight hours at the movies -- and that is no problem at "Lagaan."
This film is already on DVD and video in the U.S., but if you can see it on the big screen -- where you can get the full impact if its sights and sounds -- it's worth your trouble to do so.