Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Film: Lagaan, Once Upon a Time in India

My on-line friend, Prashant, who writes a very good blog, was the first to call my attention to "Lagaan," an excellent movie from 2001. The picture, which received an Academy Award nomination as best foreign film, is available on DVD.

“Lagaan” is the story of a group of local lads from a farming village in 1893 who are challenged by the British military leader of the province to play a cricket match against his men. The stakes set by this arrogant officer are high: win the match, and he will suspend the taxes for the village and all the villages in the region for three years; but lose, and the taxes will be tripled.

Once challenged, there is no way to back out. Even if the British call off the game, the taxes will go up.

The man who sparks the challenge is Bhovan, a young farmer played by Aamir Kahn. Kahn, who also co-produced the film, is a superstar. He not only is a good, intense actor, but also a very physical actor. And he can sing and dance.

The singing and dancing comes into the movie several times, sort of like rock videos inserted into the film. While I found them unusual at first, they are very easy to take, move the story forward, and are a nice reminder that movies like “Lagaan,” even with its serious theme of occupation and oppression, are also entertainments.

The large cast of "Lagaan" includes the beautiful Gracy Singh, playing Gauri, Bhovan’s girlfriend, Paul Blackthorne as the arrogant Captain Russell, and Rachel Shelley as the officer's sister, Elizabeth, who secretly helps Bhovan and his team learn the game. Another standout actor in the film is Rajesh Vivek as Guran, the village soothsayer and fearsome crazy man with his wild beard and ferocious eyebrows. In fact, the whole cast is excellent under the direction of Ashutosh Guwariker.

The movie builds to the big, tense showdown between Bhovan and his ragtag team facing the experienced team of British officers. “Lagaan” is a big, glossy, well-done film, and at nearly 3 ½ hours, it never felt a minute too long. This one is well worth the time to find and watch.

(For more overlooked films, please see Todd Mason's blog.) 


  1. Terrific choice, Elgin! I absolutely enjoyed your review of a film I watched more than a decade ago. Incidentally, it was the last Hindi movie I saw in the theatres. I have no patience for films longer than an hour and a half and especially not for the hundreds of song-and-dance films that Bollywood churns out every year. No doubt, there have been some very good non-commercial or parallel cinema in recent years.

    LAGAAN, which means tax, was a big hit in India which was largely on account of cricket, a religion in my country. The story is loosely based on what could have been during the freedom struggle. Champaran, the village setting in the film, was a real village in the northeast state of Bihar where Gandhi, in 1917, fought for the rights of poor farmers caught between taxes and drought. Aamir Khan, often compared to Tom Hanks, is known for his dedication and intensity.

    Bhuvan's successful cricket team became a metaphor for the real Indian team which at the time wasn't doing well in the game. I liked LAGAAN mainly because of the various layers in the film, despair, hope, racism, casteism, unity, romance, all blending wonderfully in the end.

    Lest I forget, thanks for the mention, Elgin.

    1. Prashant – Thanks for the comments and for recommending LAGAAN. My review could have been four times as long and still not covered all the good things in this film. And even though I know nothing about cricket, the movie made it easy to follow the game and to get swept up in the suspense of it.

  2. I'll make a note of this one though I'm usually not too keen on films this long.