Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

Reviewed by Anabela Voi You

Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Music: A.R. Rahman; Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Year: 2001
Running Time: An eternity or around 350 billion minutes.

After seeing Lagaan on many Bollywood’s “must-see” lists and hearing about its praise in general, I had a hard time trying to warm up to it. I can see the technical and artistic merit of this film – the idea is original and the scriptwriting was excellent. However, I found the momentum and energy lacking in the film. Perhaps because the characters in the story were flat, myopic, and uncomplicated, the movie’s total focus was on the cricket competition, barring the viewer from getting too emotionally involved in the experience of the characters. I don’t know if I or Lagaan was the problem, but I was not thrilled with it. At times the boredom was so sedative that I caught my mind wandering into another galaxy.

Lagaan is a simple film, nothing to it. (Insert inner voice expletive: I am dying of boredom). Rather boring, though you wonder where all these European extras came from. They probably hail from some backpacker hostel of joint-inhaling kids somewhere in Delhi. You sort of guessed that the flick was going to be a snoozer once the Academy Oscar Hollywood people get to it. Of all the great movies these frozen yogurt-eating, yoga contortionist wanna-bes of Southern California could have nominated from Bollywood, they had to choose this one. Lagaan is at heart a good film but I really wonder how Aamir Khan and crew came up with the idea of combining a story on tax and cricket with a British versus Indian storyline. With such a far-out and seemingly inconceivable idea, you’d think the product would be surreal and nonsensical, but the movie couldn’t be more conventional and mainstream. Don’t get me wrong – you might enjoy it if you’re into cricket or tax evasion.
The film was nowhere near bad and indeed it could be classified as a good to very good film. (Inner voice expletive: Trying to be as objective as possible). The problem was that it lacked the typical Bollywood charisma and energy, and obviously this is a subjective statement. The storyline was well-written and clever, and the unlikely story of cricket and tax was very well-portrayed in such a down-to-earth manner I couldn’t believe it. The cricket competition was also well-depicted and choreographed. Technically, I couldn’t complain about any glaring flaws regarding the acting, the music, plot, cinematography, etc., because all these elements were smoothly weaved into a classical cinematic symphony. The musical and dance aspects of the film were nothing memorable, but to its advantage, these numbers were performed under naturalistic lighting and in the outdoors which evoked a feeling of pastoral beauty.
Just a bit of trivia: Rachel Shelley’s song-and-dance routine was sung by playback singer Vasundhara Das, the bride caught with another lover before her wedding in Monsoon Wedding. Mr. Aamir Khan is considered one of the greatest technical actors in India in the ranks of Shah Rukh Khan. I haven’t seen Aamir Khan’s other performances so I can’t be the final judge of his acting, although Lagaan just didn’t convince me he was all that. I hope to be corrected in the future, as talent is rare. Aamir produced Lagaan and it became a huge success. He’s known to hit the jackpot of gold with not several movies a year but with one or two, quite unusual for the frantic Bollywood assembly line of movie-making.
The reason why Lagaan was unusually long even for a Bollywood film is that it covered a cricket match of the Brits versus Indians over a period of 3 days plus a quadra-love-angle, having simple villagers learn the British sport in 3 months, and some ethnic-religious conflicts/resolutions! (Inner voice expletive: Kill me now.) You knew the Indians were going to win but the revolving door of British wins and losses was well-done and kept the tension bubbling. (Inner voice expletive: Purple stars, ocean moons, diamond cakes, my eyelids are drooping.) Contemporary cinema doesn’t like black-and-white categorization, a.k.a. bad guys versus good guys. One of the good guys is a Brit called Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, the sister of the villain. All the actors delivered good performances, while I doubted Aamir Khan’s performance as Bhuvan, a simple farmer with guts and determination. (Inner voice expletive: Botox face?). I can’t tell the difference whether he’s being macho with minimum emoting or that stiffness is his state of being.
I haven’t seen Aamir Khan in anything else but he’s from a strong pedigree of Bollywood greats and has won several awards for his acting including Lagaan. I’m surprised to be honest because he appeared rather Zombie-esque rather than a young man containing all that inner passion inside that is just waiting to burst out. Assessing acting ability is an incredibly subjective activity, and although many praised Anil Kapoor for winning Best Supporting Actor in Taal, I just don’t get it. Maybe I have a different taste in acting styles, but the same thing applies to Aamir Khan – I don’t get what the thunder is about. It’s “safe” to do a little emoting from time to time; it justifies your acting school fees.
The storyline is very simple: the villagers of Champaner are about to be required to send in their taxes and most of their produce to the Brits who plan to double their taxation. They are already living in poverty and drought, so they protest further taxation. However, the British villain Russell takes a gamble with the villagers: 1) If you (villagers, symbolic of all India) beat us the (Brits, symbolic of evil colonialism) in cricket, then you, not just your village but the entire province, won’t get taxed (lagaan) for 3 years. The villagers have 3 months to prepare. Well, the problem is the villagers don’t know how to play cricket nor do they have the equipment. The villain’s angelic sister feels sorry for the villagers and teaches them cricket.
Aamir Khan sets out to find the perfect players for each tactical position of his cricket team – he even finds a lame boy who has an unusual ability to throw spinning balls. He knows how to find talent and utilize and maximize his players’ natural abilities. For example, the village’s chicken farmer is extremely agile with catching fleeing chickens and he was chosen to be the catcher. Of course, the whole film is a political allegory that calls India to overlook its differences and unite – it wasn’t hard to guess that when one of the Muslims in the movie came out and said, “I don’t care about our religious differences, I just want to fight our common enemy [the Brits]!”
Gracy Singh’s Gauri performed well as a village girl in love and stands by her man in times of crisis. She exuded feminine earthiness and vivacity. Despite being jealous of Rachel Shelley’s Elizabeth, she stood by Bhuvan (Khan), putting love second to the fate of her nation like a good, traditional woman would. Even when she was jealous she was still adorable. Rachel Shelley’s Elizabeth was light, airy, angelic, and her presence was lovely to behold. Rachel Shelley’s Bollywood red-clad, song-and-dance routine was rather unnatural and made me feel a little embarrassed for her, because somewhere in my twisted mind I can see Madhuri Dixit laughing her ass off. Of course, there’s an annoying spy that blows all the secret information to the villain, but the community accepts him back like the prodigal son that has gone astray, further compounding the political message that calls for unity.
One of the deleted scenes has a tribute (unintentionally, I believe) to "The Usual Suspects" where Bhuvan and Elizabeth are trying to find the spy-culprit. They made them stand in a line and say, “I’ve been no use.” It is reminiscent of how the "God of Cookery" also had an "Usual Suspects" moment. Lagaan’s version didn’t have much humor except when the village mystic/oracle man screamed, “Disaster is on the way!” In the deleted scenes, the superiors of Russell even made sure they would go to the match so that there won’t be foul play, knowing how wicked their underling is. The superiors enjoyed the cricket match, mouthing sportsmanlike praises during highs and lows of the game. They were quite nice and pleasant “chaps” who restrained Russell and put him into place though often enough. Nobody knows what was the problem with Paul Blackthorne’s Russell, but he probably suffered a major childhood or sexual crisis that resulted in his being a total git of pomposity, vindictiveness, and despicability as an adult. Although the boredom didn’t quite make me hemorrhage, I do have enough distance to concede that Lagaan is a well-made, clever, and original film as well as harboring enough content and quality to make it enjoyable.

Rating: 7.5