Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India Movie Review

Welcome to Bollywood, where every film ever produced is a musical. If you're frightened by the thought, rest assured that with a population of 1.2 billion people backing a film industry that has been remarkably successful, it is no wonder Indian filmmakers stick to the formula.

Nevertheless, what has been lacking for many Americans like myself, curious to know what Indian movies are all about, is a Bollywood production with real crossover potential. If you're one of those interested people, look no further than Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India, written and directed by Ashutosh Gowarider. Although movies like ABCD (which stands for American Born Confused Deshi), American Chai, and Monsoon Wedding have exposed Western audiences to a fascinating Indian culture, they are not cut from the traditional Indian movie blueprint. Thankfully, Lagaan is a film made by Indian filmmakers for a primarily Indian audience... but that can be enjoyed by anyone with an open mind.

Set in 1893 at the height of British colonial rule, the fairy-tale story revolves around a group of farmers struggling to pay a tax called Lagaan, which they offer to their local Rajah in exchange for the protection of their village. The Lagaan tax is a scheme the British have concocted in order to exploit the farmers while also pitting the powerful Rajahs, who control vast territories and wealth, against one another. The year has been particularly rough for the villagers of Champaner due to the lack of rainfall. When Rajah Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) pleads with the cruel British Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) for a suspension of the Lagaan, he is faced with the spiteful choice of eating meat in defiance of his Hindi religion or forcing his people to pay double Lagaan. The Rajah will not compromise his religious integrity, and the tax is then doubled. But after Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a bold and defiant Champaneran, insults Captain Russell and his men, the captain decides to put Bhuvan on the spot by challenging him and his fellow Champanerans to a game of cricket. At stake is three years without payment of the Lagaan or triple the tax for that year. Despite the protests of his fellow villagers, Bhuvan accepts the challenge.

Never mind that not even do they not know the rules of game, none of the villagers have ever even touched a cricket ball or paddle, including Bhuvan. As the deprived Indian villagers are forced to learn the game or face certain starvation, the narrative hilariously develops a romance between Bhuvan and Gauri (Gracy Singh) along with the interfering love interest of Captain Russell's sister, who is enamored with Bhuvan because she feels her tyrannical brother has unfairly spited him. She defies her brother and secretly teaches the Champaner farmers the rules of the game. The tale is filled with love, betrayal, and intrigue leading up to a climactic game of cricket that is almost as exhausting and exhilarating to watch as it is for the players on the screen.

Despite a running time of nearly four hours, the excessive length of the film never feels too grueling thanks in large part to a five-minute intermission. In case you're wondering whether four-hour flicks are the norm in India, this is the longest Hindi film made in over 32 years and was the most expensive Bollywood production ever.

A pessimist might become disgruntled with the song and dance routines, which tend to interrupt tense moments; yet the lyrics to the songs are surprisingly poetic. While at first the performances may appear a bit silly and poorly choreographed in comparison to, say, your average Michael Jackson video, it took about three musical interludes for me to realize that the dance steps are distinct to the Indian culture and beautiful in their own right. On the other hand, if you really want to enjoy this film you cannot be afraid to laugh at it. When the two lovers end up lying in a random stack of hay or sitting up in a tree as part of a coy game of hide-and-seek-in-song, you really shouldn't hold back.

While Lagaan may be criticized for its predictability, it compares favorably to other sports classics such as Pride of the Yankees and The Bad News Bears -- while at the same time it's also reminiscent of timeless musicals such as Grease and even Romeo and Juliet. Even better, it's a fairy tale that comes from a renowned Indian film culture that allows Americans to finally revel in its splendor.

This bird's gonna fly!

Comments

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: PG, 2001

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