“Lagaan” is an extremely entertaining film, which is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and yet it is totally familiar to you. Set in India in 1893, it combines sports with political intrigue, romance with evil plot, musical numbers with small comedy and big drama, and is in the tradition of entertainment films produced by the world’s largest film industry in Bombay, “Bollywood”.
I’ve only seen five or six Bollywood films, including one in 1999 in Hyderabad, India, where I climbed to the highest balcony and shivered in the Arctic air-conditioning while watching a film that lasted well over three hours and had something for everyone. The most charming aspect of most Bollywood films is their joyful willingness to start singing and dancing at the slightest pretext; the film I watched was about a romance between a rich boy and a poor girl whose poverty didn’t stop them from producing backup dancers whenever they needed them.
“Lagaan” is considered the most ambitious, expensive and successful Bollywood film ever made and has been a box-office hit worldwide. If “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was able to get out of the martial arts ghetto and make $150 million, then why not make it a Bollywood movie for non-Indians? The film has managed to surpass its genre; it was nominated for an Oscar this year for Best Foreign Film and has achieved amazing screen averages in North American theaters.
All this rules out the possibility that most readers of this magazine have never seen a Bollywood film and don’t want to start now. It will be their loss. This film is unlike anything they’ve seen before, with its stunning landscapes, architecture and locations, its exuberant colors, its sudden and joyful musical numbers amidst dramatic scenes and its melodramatic play (gnashing teeth, sinking tears, trembling lips, bouncing breasts, clenching fists). At the same time, it reminds us of the movies we all grew up with, with clearly defined villains and heroes, a romantic triangle and even a comic character who saves the day. “Lagaan” is a well-made epic, extremely entertaining, which has the spice of a foreign culture.
The story takes place at the height of the Raj, England’s occupying government in India. In a remote province, the local British commander is Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), a creep who bites his lip and has a penchant for racism, insults the local maharaja to his face and doesn’t think about beating up a Hindu upstart. Even his colleagues find him excessive. He administers the “lagaan”, the annual tax that peasants have to pay to their maharajah and he to the British. It is a time of drought and famine, and the peasants cannot pay.
Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a leader of his people, confronts Russell and finds his weakness: the captain is obsessed with cricket and thinks it is a game that the Indians will never be able to master. Bhuvan says that it is an ancient Indian game and that Indians can excel at it. Russell offers a bet to Bhuvan: The British and a team from the village will play a cricket match. If the Indians win, there will be no Lagaan for three years. If the British win, Lagaan will be tripled. The villagers think Bhuvan is crazy because a triple tax would destroy them, but he emphasizes that they have nothing to lose because they cannot pay the current tax.