Ashutosh Gowariker's glorious "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" is to the Bollywood musical epic what Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was to the period martial arts action adventure: an affectionate homage to a popular genre that raises it to the level of an art film with fully drawn characters, a serious underlying theme and a sophisticated style and point of view.
Most crucially, its songs and dances are not mere interludes inserted in the action, bringing it to a halt--a Bollywood trademark--but are fully integrated into the plot and marked by expressive, dynamic singing and dancing that infuse a historical drama with energy and immediacy.
But there is a hitch: At a whopping 225 minutes, "Lagaan," an Oscar nominee for best foreign film and the most expensive Indian film ever, won't attract nearly as wide an audience as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." "Lagaan's" running time, however, is not unusual in the Hindi cinema, as mainstream Indian audiences are eager to get their money's worth from their escapist entertainments. What's more, Gowariker does sustain the daunting length of his film, although it sags a bit at the halfway point before moving into its compelling, increasingly suspenseful second half. Such midway lulls are common in even very good ultra-long films and not ultimately harmful.
The film's title refers to the exorbitant land tax the British Raj exacted of the Indian peasantry. The year is 1893, the height of British imperial glory, and the setting is the village of Champaner, which has endured such a long drought that it is late in paying last year's lagaan.
In a nearby British cantonment, the arrogant commandant, Capt. Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne), an unabashed white supremacist, takes the villagers' plight as an opportunity to humiliate the local rajah (Kulbhushan Kharbanda). He tries to force him to violate his religion by requiring him to eat meat if the lagaan is to be waived. When the rajah finds he cannot, the captain says he will demand a double lagaan.
Meanwhile, the villagers, who know they will barely survive the year only with the lagaan lifted, petition the sympathetic but powerless rajah.
The young farmer Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) leads a protest, which Russell offers to resolve with a deal: He tells the villagers they will be free of the lagaan for three years if they succeed in defeating the British officers at a cricket match to be held in three months. If the villagers lose, they must pay a triple lagaan.
Realizing that to pay any amount of lagaan in the usual form of wheat, rice and maize crops is to court starvation, Bhuvan accepts the challenge, even though he and his friends have no experience playing cricket. The captain's pretty visiting sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), sympathizes with them.
This is just the beginning. Back in Champaner, the beautiful Gauri (Gracy Singh) is trying to get Bhuvan to notice her as he and his friends begin their attempt to become champion cricket players.
Imaginative musical numbers emerge at the most appropriate moments, deepening the drama's emotions and moods. The pace quickens in the second half as the arduous three-day match gets underway and any traces of "Lagaan's" quaint folk-tale quality fade away, laying bare the brutal outrage of colonialism.
Gowariker does a terrific job of making the match suspenseful, leavening it with a bit of humor but even greater pathos. "Lagaan" may be an epic entertainment extravaganza, but it also is as harsh an indictment of British imperialism as any filmed.
Bhuvan and Gauri are archetypal movie star roles, but both are demanding parts; Khan and Singh are more than up to them.
Similarly, Elizabeth proves to be a more complex woman than she at first seems, but Shelley radiantly illuminates all aspects of the young woman's admirable character and her increasing emotional anguish.
With his dandy's fancy sideburns and mustache, and a permanent sneer affixed to his face, Blackthorne's Russell is a classic man-you-love-to-hate. The film's large supporting cast is similarly effective in presenting the characters as easily recognizable types and then gradually revealing them to be three-dimensional individuals.
Javed Akhtar's lyrics (rendered well in the film's excellent English subtitles) and A.R. Rahman's music are enchanting, as are the production design and the costumes. Cinematographer Anil Mehta bathes the entire film in warm earth tones. It is well worth submitting to "Lagaan's" long haul--and the answer to the most crucial question pertaining to the film is, yes, there will be an intermission.
MPAA rating: PG, for language and some violence. Times guidelines: Suitable for family audiences but too grueling for the very young.
'Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India'
Rachel Shelley...Elizabeth Russell
Paul Blackthorne...Capt. Andrew Russell
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Jhamu Sughand presentation of an Aamir Khan production. Writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker. Dialogue K.P. Saxena. English dialogue Gowariker. Producer Aamir Khan. Cinematographer Anil Mehta. Editors Ballu Saluja, Kumar Dave, Sanjay Dayma. Music A.R. Rahman. Lyrics Javed Akhtar. Costumes Bhanu Athaiya. Production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai. In Hindi and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 3 hours, 45 minutes.
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