Like Chinese and Iranian cinema before it, Bollywood just might be the next big thing among American cineastes. The evocative clip of 1965’s Gumnaam from last year’s Ghost World is both indicative of and an inspiration for interest in Indian cinema, and with the popularity of DVD, more Bollywood movies are now available with English subtitles. If any movie can readily test the waters on these shores, it is Lagaan, which was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film (No Man’s Land won). Readily accessible despite its lengthy running time, Lagaan is a blend of recognizable genres and formulas – a downtrodden people’s epic struggle against Imperialist powers, a sports action movie, a romance, and like all Bollywood movies, a musical.
Lagaan’s story takes place in 1890s India. The colonizing British extort taxes known as lagaan from the Rajahs who rule the different territories. In return, the British, with their powerful military, keep the peace among them. The Rajahs do not suffer except in their dignity, since the taxes are passed down to the farmers, making the poor even more impoverished. As the Brits treat the Indians as second-class citizens in their own country, they are hated by the natives with a passion; yet the only one who shows open contempt is youthful Bhuvan (Aamir Khan).
When Captain Andrew Russell (played by the appropriately-named Paul Blackthorne) doubles the lagaan on Rajah Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Puran doubles the tax on the farmers. The village of Champaner protests furiously since they are in the middle of a devastating drought. Out of amusement and a wish to humiliate, Captain Russell offers the farmers and specifically the outspoken Bhuvan a bet. If the Indians can beat him and his men in a game of cricket, they will impose no lagaan for three years. If the Indians lose, the lagaan is tripled. Needless to say, the brash Bhuvan accepts though he does not even know how to play cricket.
Lagaan is a throwback to the old fashioned adventure epic, and as a formula film, it is predictable every step of the way. The movie is basically The Seven Samurai (though not in any way comparable to Akira Kurosawa’s greatest movie) except the heroes play cricket instead of indulging in serious swordplay. Ultimately, the lack of originality matters little because it’s the way the story is told, with efficiency and flair, that makes Lagaan a terrific film.That is a lesson today’s Hollywood needs to learn. Hollywood is infatuated with high concept ideas but not how to tell them vibrantly.
Bhuvan’s creation of his team is a story in itself. Each player brings a special skill to the game, and the characters are carefully delineated and developed unlike the similar recruitment situation in the recent Ocean’s Eleven. Several subplots enhance the main story. Bhuvan’s childhood friend, Gauri (Gracy Singh), is in love with him and becomes jealous when Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), showers Bhuvan with attention. Elizabeth who has observed her brother’s malicious treatment of the Indians, betrays him by teaching the farmers how to play cricket. Another villager, Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), who is in love with Gauri and jealous of Bhuvan, joins the team in order to betray Bhuvan to Captain Russell.
Despite its daunting near-four-hour length, Lagaan is not overly serious or stuffy at all, but larger-than-life entertainment filled with humor, romance, and action. It breezes by and even the climactic cricket game, which lasts 80 minutes of screen time by itself, is never less than captivating (unless you hate cricket). While the game of cricket may not be familiar to most American audiences and while the movie does not spell out the rules explicitly, most viewers should be able to pick up on how the game is played as the film progresses. Still, for those in doubt, a quick look in the encyclopedia is advisable.
Then there is the singing and dancing. Virtually every Bollywood picture features musical sequences by convention, and Lagaan is no exception, though it has fewer of these scenes than most Indian productions. The movie makes them all count though.Unlike many Indian films, the musical sections all advance the story instead of just providing gratuitous interludes. And what joyous music it is, coming from one of India’s great film composers, A.R. Rahman. After victories for music direction with Rangeela, Dil Se, and Taal, Rahman won his fourth Filmfare Award, the Indian version of the Oscar, for Lagaan.
The performances in Lagaan are not naturalistic, but broad and theatrical leaving little room for subtlety. The real standout in the cast is star Aamir Khan, one of the biggest names in contemporary Indian cinema. He gives Bhuvan a charismatic, headstrong presence while being forthright that Bhuvan is not the brightest bulb in the land. With Khan’s handsome visage and physicality, one can easily see why Bhuvan sets women’s heads spinning. As his nemesis, Captain Russell, Paul Blackthorne is almost too dastardly. He walks around with an arrogant smirk permanently affixed to his face. Whenever he speaks, he enunciates each word as if he were spitting on the audience.
Despite the claims of Lagaan’s champions and the notice it has garnered in the West, Lagaan should not be mistaken for one of Bollywood’s all-time great movies. It is a very solid genre piece, not a visionary work. What one finds in Lagaan is not the neorealism of Satyajit Ray, but a lavish, mythic storybook fantasy, and on that level, it is very successful.