The best blockbuster summer movie you’ll see this summer was made on a shoestring budget of a few million dollars, with absolutely no special effects. It was made on location in the rural village Bhuj in central India. I’ve been following Bollywood cinema for several years now, and I think that the recent film “Lagaan” is not only the best I’ve ever seen, but also the Indian film that’d be most accessible to a Western audience.
The tagline for this immensely enjoyable film is “Once Upon a Time in India,” and the larger-than-life battles it presents are definitely Leone-esque even though the only weapons involved are bats and balls.
The setting is rural India in the 19th century, where the people strain under the yoke of British oppression. But anyone fearing standard art house fare can take heart–Lagaan isn’t some somber meditation on colonialism, nor is it your typical simplistic celebration of exotic rural life. It’s a rousing action flick packed with melodrama and intrigue and comedy, a revisionist Gunga Din with Hindi musical numbers instead of Kipling poems.
“Lagaan,” means land tax , and the villagers of Champaner are unable to pay their lagaan due to droughts and famine. Our stalwart protagonist Bhuvan (played by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan) leads a delegation of his countrymen to the colonial encampment of the Raj to demand a cessation in tax until the droughts end. They arrive to find the foreign soldiers at rest, playing some ridiculously childish stickball game. The ranking British officer Captain Russell is enraged at the defiance of the natives and stung by their ridicule of the English national pastime. He offers them a challenge: assemble a team, master the sport, and face the soldiers in a no-holds-barred cricket match. If the villagers win, the punitive land tax will be abolished. If they lose, it will be tripled.
From this silly premise, a delightful and compelling epic has been made, one that ingeniously allows the Indian heroes to rebel against British tyranny by literally beating them at their own game. Anyone who’s ever seen Seven Samurai or Dirty Dozen or Mighty Ducks knows how it’s all going to turn out, but Lagaan is so skillfully put together that you can’t help being drawn in as the Forces of Good once again prepare to do battle with the Forces of Evil.
An extensive cast of Englishmen portray the Forces of Evil, and they all speak and act their roles convincingly in both English and Hindi. Many of them sport hilariously authentic sets of bushy sideburns and muttonchops, and they all appear to be genuinely skilled cricket bowlers and batsmen. And cricket skill is as important to this film as kung fu prowess was to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The main baddie Captain Russell is played by Paul Blackthorne, who certainly looks the part of the effete colonialist–imagine a cross between Errol Flynn and Cary Elwes, with the preening superciliousness turned up to eleven.
But the Anglos are mostly just set dressing. The movie is is ultimately a star vehicle for Aamir Khan , and he cuts a dashing figure whether he’s defying the priggish foreigners, entreating his kinsmen to unite behind him, defending the downtrodden castes from his fellow villagers, or romancing his lady love Gauri (Gracy Singh). He also swings a mean bat.
Khan is repeatedly upstaged by the rest of the Indian cast. In the time-honored sports movie fashion, a member of every local religion and ethnic group is recruited for the Indian team, and each team member is given their own unique skill and their own personal motivation to win as they all train for the momentous match. The MVP of the supporting cast is definitely Rajesh Vivek as the crazed fortune teller Guran, who steals every scene he’s in with his Rasputinish stare and his ferocious delivery of dialogue and cricket balls.
There’s plenty of time to get to know each and every member of the enormous cast. At four hours with intermission, Lagaan has an epic pacing even by the leisurely standards of Bollywood. The climactic cricket game itself occupies an hour and a half of screen time, gradually building to a nerve-wracking climax as the score climbs into the hundreds.
And not to worry if you don’t know a thing about cricket–you will learn over the course of the movie, just as the villagers do. They are taught the intricacies of the sport by Elizabeth Russell (Rachel Shelley), who is disgusted by the behavior of her wicked brother Captain Russell. She’s also powerfully attracted by the rugged manliness of Bhuvan. A racially charged love triangle of sorts develops between the British woman and the Indian lovers Bhuvan and Gauri; Elizabeth even chimes in wistfully during one of the romantic musical numbers (her lyrics are all English, in a priceless Victorian doggerel style that never fails to provoke gales of laughter from the audience).
Oh yeah, and those musical numbers… Anyone unfamiliar with the integral role that music plays in Bollywood movies is definitely in for a treat. The songs by A. R. Rahman are the sort of tunes that implant on impact and leave you humming them for weeks. Gracy Singh’s dancing is particularly exquisite, but the rest of the staging and choreography doesn’t exactly break new ground. But it all adds immeasurably to your involvement with the story, and you may be surprised at the emotional investment you have made in these characters by the time that the last ball is bowled.
Lagaan is a big-budget movie by Bollywood standards, and at first it looked like it was doomed to share the fate of all overhyped blockbusters. During production, the Indian press buzzed with gloomy stories about the relative inexperience of director Ashutosh Gowariker, the technical difficulties caused by his unheard-of use of synchronized sound, and the travails of a six-month location shoot (a veritable eternity in an industry where some stars make six movies a year).
Luckily for all of us, everything came together beautifully. Lagaan is a terrific “summer movie,” and a great introduction to the joys of Indian popular cinema.