Friday, March 2, 2012

Movie – Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

Lagaan is the first Indian movie that I remember hearing about.  The reason I remember is that I had seen it for sale in a store, while just having read an article about how it was setting box office records for a Bollywood film in the U.S.  This made me curious, so the next time I was in the store I looked for it, but all the copies were gone.  At first I thought they must have sold out, but when nobody else was selling it either, I figured out what had happened.  Like other Bollywood films at that time, this had been released direct to DVD in the U.S.  When Lagaan became only the third film from India to ever be nominated for an Oscar (after 1955’s Mother India and 1988’s Salaam Bombay), the studio decided to release it theatrically.  When they did this, they apparently had the DVDs pulled from the shelves.  The problem with this is that movie rental places didn’t end up getting copies, so I didn’t have any way to see it.  (This was before the days of Netflix). 

Fast forward to about five years ago and I happened to spy a copy for sale.  By then I had forgotten about wanting to see it, but this reminded me.  I did a blind buy – something I rarely do.  Even then it was a few more months before I finally watched the movie.  I was glad that I had.  It is an entertaining, crowd pleasing film.  Time Magazine recently named it one of the 25 best sports films ever made, although it is a lot more than just a sports movie.

The sport in this case is cricket.  I had a couple of contractors from India over to my house to celebrate the completion of a major phase of a project they had worked on for me.  They happened to notice Lagaan on my shelf.  I explained why I had it, but that I hadn’t watched it yet.  The guy was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow the cricket action, having never seen the game.  My lack of cricket knowledge turned out to not be a problem because a major part of the plot involves the Indians having to learn the game themselves, so I learned it along with them.  Please do not avoid this film just because you don’t know the rules of cricket.

The film is set in the 1890s in what is now western India.  At the time the entire region was a British colony.  The British military were in charge of collecting the land taxes (lagaan) from the local population.  The small village of Champaner is having trouble paying the tax.  There has been a drought and they have not been able to grow enough crops to sell.  A man named Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) goes to their Raja to beg him to get the British to drop the tax.  The Raja cannot do anything since he is subject to British rule, too.

While visiting the Raja Bhuvan sees a cricket match for the first time.  He comments that it looks like a game that his people played when they were children, yet these are adults.  He makes fun of the British and gets into a fight with them.  The local military commander, Capt. Andrew Russell (played by 24’s Paul Blackthorne), sets a trap for Bhuvan.  Russell says that he is willing to have his soldiers play Bhuvan’s villagers in a game of cricket.  If the villagers win, the Captain will waive the tax for the next three years.  However, if the villagers lose, they will owe triple the tax.  Bhuvan, a proud, impetuous man, immediately accepts the wager without consulting anyone else from his village.  When the villagers find out they are furious with him.  If they lose they will be completely destroyed by the financial burden.  They have no other choice, though, so they start to try to get a cricket team together.

As you can imagine, they are about as pathetic as can be.  Bhuvan carves a cricket bat out of a piece of wood.  All they have for a ball is a round stone.  They tie bamboo and straw around their legs for padding.  Unbeknownst to them, they have a sympathizer.  The Captain’s sister, Elizabeth Russell (The L Word’s Rachel Shelley), does not like the cruel trick her brother has played on the villagers.  Through a translator she offers to teach Bhuvan the rules and strategies of the game.  Bhuvan quickly runs through a comedic demonstration of how he thinks the sport is played.  Elizabeth turns to her translator and dryly tells him not to bother translating; she can tell Bhuvan knows nothing.

With Elizabeth’s help, the core of a team starts to form.  The villagers need 11 men, though, and only about half that come forward.  There are some men who refuse to join a team that has other men on it, whether because of religious differences or caste differences.  When Bhuvan accepts an Untouchable (the lowest caste) onto the team, he almost loses everybody else.  He rallies them by explaining that they all need to band together against the British.  Word of what they are doing spreads.  One day a fearsome Sikh walks into the village.  He has played cricket on British teams and he offers his services.  He is quickly accepted.

As the training goes on, Elizabeth starts to fall in love with Bhuvan.  This causes a concern for the village girl Gauri (Gracy Singh), who also loves him.  Bhuvan assures Gauri that he loves her and not Elizabeth, but she still worries.  Unfortunately, another man in town, Lakha (Yashpal Sharma) also loves Gauri and his jealousy causes him to plot against Bhuvan.  Lakha joins the villagers’ team, but as an agent of the British Captain.

This is the first part of the movie.  The second part is the match itself.  By the time they start to play, it has become a huge event.  Many Indians have come from all around to see their own people challenge their colonizers.  At the same time, Captain Russell’s superiors have gotten wind of what is going on and he has been told in no uncertain terms that the British simply cannot lose to the Indians.  If they do, his career is over and he will have to pay the tax himself.  The superiority of the British Empire must be maintained.

From this description you can probably tell how this would push all the right buttons with an Indian audience (different religions and castes all united against the British.)  It was extremely popular in the country and it has touched a nerve in the U.S., too.  Americans love an underdog story and Lagaan certainly gives it to them.  Pretty much any underdog sports movie in the U.S. is referred to as “the Rocky of [fill in the sport]”.  Well, I’ve seen this movie described as the Rocky of cricket.

One thing that has kept some people from watching this film is the length.  Indians love a long movie and this one is no exception.  It’s The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions long.  I started watching it at 8:00 PM and at 11:30 PM it was still going.  I had to work the next day and was starting to wonder if I’d have to pause it.  Fortunately, it wrapped up in another 10-15 minutes.  I then foolishly played the Deleted Scenes and those ran another 30-40 minutes.  The film didn’t really feel long, though.  I only noticed the length because of the fact that it was extending my bedtime.

Aamir Khan does a very good job in his lead role of Bhuvan.  He comes from Bollywood royalty (think Hollywood’s Barrymores or Fondas) and started acting when he was young.  His breakout performance was probably in 1990’s Dil, which is credited with shifting Bollywood’s focus toward more romantic films.  By 2001’s Lagaan he was one of the most respected actors working in India.  In 2007 he directed himself as an inspirational teacher to a boy who was a dreamer in Taare Zameen Par (aka Like Stars on Earth) and this was an extremely popular film.

Lagaan is a good choice if you want to see a real Bollywood movie.  It has a couple musical numbers and it has romantic and thrilling action.  Unless you feel you cannot stand the length, I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars



  1. This is one of the rare Bollywood movies I've seen, and it's one that I've sung the praises of in the past many times. Such a fun and uplifting film. It's long, but it feels much shorter than its run time.

  2. @SJHoneywell - I'm not doing a very good job of expanding your exposure to Indian films, am I? :-) Well, I AM picking the biggest of them, so the odds are that they have been seen by more people. I think the next one - Black - might be one that fewer people in the U.S. have seen.

  3. An epic...
    I never leave a chance to watch it even after all this years.

  4. @Vinay - Thanks for sharing your love for this movie.