How shameful it is that it took an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film to get Sony to see the light and give a theatrical release to the rousing and delightful Indian import “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” which they had already consigned to the direct-to-home-entertainment market back in January. The big screen would definitely be the proper place to see such a splashy, epic entertainment, but for homebodies (and those not living in areas served by the current theatrical run), Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has offered a satisfying digital edition of the film.
“Lagaan” is about as big a crowdpleaser as they possibly come, but the studio’s hesitation in giving the film a theatrical run is somewhat understandable. First of all, in accordance with the “epic entertainment” description, the film boasts a sizeable running time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, to be exact. On top of that, the film is a quintessential Bollywood production, meaning all those opulent song and dance numbers are in heavy supply. Then there’s the one fact that would really strike fear in domestic marketing execs: it’s not only a musical, but a musical about… the sport of cricket.
The film sounds alienating, to be sure, but the film’s subtitle, “Once Upon a Time in India,” points up the universality of the story–and, admittedly, more than a whiff of its formula nature. The setting is 1893 in the village of Champaner, outside of which lies a British cantonment commanded by the greedy Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Russell has been collecting a stiff lagaan, or land tax (now you see why the first word of the title wasn’t translated. “Land Tax: Once Upon a Time in India” doesn’t have quite the same ring), from all the villages, and the tax has been impossible for the villagers to pay as their harvests have been vastly diminished due to a drought. One villager, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan, who also produced), has the courage to stand up to the British colonialists, and somehow he manages to strike an unusual deal with Russell: they will play a game of cricket to determine the future of the lagaan. If the villagers win, no lagaan for three years; if they lose, they will have to pay triple the regular amount. With the help and teaching of Russell’s sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), Bhuvan and his compatriots attempt to do the impossible.
It’s a typical sports movie set up, and the “Once upon a time” of the subtitle should leave little doubt as to how this is all going to end. But what makes “Lagaan” so special is the spirited execution. The foreign/exotic quality of the sport and the storytelling undoubtedly adds to its appeal. It helps that, along with the villagers, most American viewers will learn about cricket right along with them. The seemingly unlikely incorporation of musical numbers works fabulously; the melodies by A.R. Rahman are haunting and memorable, and they are well-sung by the stars–particularly Khan, whose talent and formidable charisma leaves no doubt as to why he’s a Bollywood superstar. The music is also crucial to making the nearly four hours of movie just breeze by; also helping is the witty and moving script, entertaining performances (particularly Blackthorne as the hissable Russell), and skillful direction by writer-helmer Ashutosh Gowariker.
The image quality on the DVD sometimes leaves something to be desired; while the colors are appropriately rich, there are a few specks and one stretch where a scratch remains visible, but these were probably unavoidable flaws from the original print. The sound quality makes up for it, however (all the better to appreciate the production numbers); as does the generally good presentation of the entire package. The booklet offers some valuable, if brief, information on the film’s production, and filmographies for the principal cast and crew are offered on the disc. No trailer or additional background material is present on the disc, but that’s compensated for by the inclusion of a deleted sequence, or “scene unseen,” as it’s called. This is no throwaway sequence, for it includes some intriguing plot points that I would actually have preferred to not be scrapped, but given the sequence is no less than 20 minutes (!) long, their deletion did make for some seamless streamlining.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi/English 5.1 Surround; Hindi/English Dolby Surround; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Thai subtitles; English closed captioning.

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