starring Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne
screenplay by Kumar Dave, Sanjay Dayma, Ashutosh Gowariker
directed by Ashutosh Gowariker
by Walter Chaw With the subtitle "Once Upon a Time in India," Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan holds a kinship to Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China in more than just appellation and an abiding dislike of the Colonial British. Other than substituting elaborate musical numbers--as is Bollywood's wont--for Hong Kong's martial arts features, Lagaan is in fact as interested in the sociology of enslavement before the rush of technology (embodied in cameras and firearms) as its farther-Eastern brethren. The rather serious-minded attack of India's own caste system and the ineffectualness of its Raj ruling structure lends additional layers to the picture's surprising depths, yet all the politicized subtext in the world does little to suppress the essential exuberance of the gaudy visceral Bollywood experience.
Shame about the Cricket, though.
Bhuvan (Aamir Khan--Indian Tom Cruise, big grin, 5'7") and his inamorata Gauri (Gracy Singh) live in a small farming community in Victorian India. An extended prologue informs us that the local British Cantonment demands a tax on the farmer's harvest called a "lagaan," which is difficult to fulfill during the best of times, impossible during a non-rainy monsoon season. Of course evil Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) decides to treble the lagaan despite the hardship of the hapless reapers--unless cheeky Bhuvan agrees to a wager involving an all-important game of Cricket. Captain Russell's fresh-faced sister Eliza (Rachel Shelley), aroused by the injustice of it all (and, no doubt, Bhuvan's oiled and tawny muscles), learns Hindi overnight and resolves herself to teach Bhuvan's misfits how to play the "silly game" of the overlords. Sadly, she doesn't take a minute among the film's two-hundred-and-twenty-seven to do the same for the Yankees in the audience.
With sharp production values and committed choreography, there is so much to love about Lagaan that it's really too bad the film bogs down into a third act Cricket match that goes on for at least ninety minutes. I would've forgiven the contention that the villagers are completely incapable of catching a ball and understanding the nuances of the game after three months of intense training (and three days of actually playing the match), but I have a much harder time forgiving Gowariker's decision to depart from the primacy of his musical sensibility for too much dry narration. Khan and Singh lend dedication to the material that is heartfelt and cornball effective, matched moment for moment by Blackthrone's moustachioed villain and Shelley's bodice-ripping race-traitor. The campy ardour of the lead foursome is likewise betrayed by Gowariker's voice-over exposition; that the picture recovers at all after a few stultifying stretches is testament to the film's performances.
At its worst, Lagaan reminds that it is overlong and unevenly paced, but at its best--in its cast of thousands, its spontaneous song and dance, and its talented performers long on charisma (note the veteran troupe's ability to sing and dance in character)--the film reminds of the heyday of the Hollywood musical. High-spirited and deliriously silly, Lagaan is a spectacle in every sense of the word. Two hours of melodramatic musical married to two hours of underdog sports intrigue, if the picture also shares the weaknesses of both genres, more's the pity. Originally published: July 6, 2002.