Movie review, 'Lagaan'

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The first time I saw "Lagaan" was on a sultry night last summer at the Adelphi Theatre in Rogers Park. I was doing a story on the Bollywood cinema scene here, and I promised my husband and 2-year-old son that we wouldn't have to stay for all nearly four hours of this Indian sports musical - maybe just an hour, or until intermission at the latest. But before we knew it, we'd become completely absorbed in the "Rocky" meets "Gandhi" tale, and the time had passed almost imperceptibly. The only thing that finally managed to pry us from our seats was embarrassment over our son's wails as he woke up from a long nap during the last crucial 30 minutes.

Who would win the final cricket match between the scrappy Indian villagers and the evil British army officers? We'd have to wait for video to find out because this was the last night of the movie's run.

Although it has been out on video for quite some time now, this weekend "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" gets a new theatrical life with its mainstream cinema release. And after having seen this Cinemascope extravaganza in a theater, on DVD and video, I still think the big screen experience is worth it.

Like most Bollywood films, it features big, colorful song-and-dance numbers that look and sound best in surround sound and on a huge screen - rather than scrunched in letter boxing on TV. And watching the film with enthusiastic, cheering cricket fans (especially South Asian ones) adds immensely to the excitement of the final match.

But on to the plot. Set in the late 19th Century, "Lagaan" takes place in the village of Champaner, overseen by a local rajah and British army officers. Each year, the army comes to collect a hefty tax (or lagaan in Hindi) that the villagers must pay in grain. Last year's harvest was bad and this year's is even worse due to a bad drought. Still, the local officials have decided to double the tax on the villagers, who have barely enough to eat.

When they go to the rajah to plead for exemption, he tells them his hands are tied. But during their visit, the sneering local British magistrate and cricket player, Capt. Russell, makes an offer to the village firebrand, Bhuvan, that he can't refuse. If the villagers can beat Russell's British team in a cricket match, he will cancel the tax for three years in the entire province. If they lose, he will triple it.

Bhuvan accepts, and incurs the wrath of his fellow villagers. But, one by one, they come around and agree to learn this foreign sport. Soon he assembles a ragtag team that includes Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and, most controversial of all, an untouchable with a mean curve ball. And so, with the secret training help of Russell's sister Elizabeth and a workout regimen that includes chasing chickens and doing yoga (of course), the players get ready for the big day - or three days as turns out to be the case.

In the meantime, Elizabeth falls hard for Bhuvan, who also has an admirer in his best friend, Gauri. But he's so focused on the game, he hardly notices the attention.

I can't tell you how the match turns out, but suffice it to say there are plenty of twists and turns and reversals of fate that make the nearly 60 minutes of this confusing sport a scintillating, feel-good experience. Among Bollywood films, "Lagaan" is unique for the relative subtlety in its acting (although Paul Blackthorne as Capt. Russell could have toned down the mustache-twirling a bit) and its willingness to tackle sticky social and political themes.

Bollywood star Aamir Khan turns in a terrific performance in the lead, as does Gracy Singh as the jealous Gauri and Rachel Shelley as the wistful Elizabeth.

It might be tempting to take in this marathon movie at home on video (which we don't recommend because the subtitles get lost in the picture) or on DVD (which is fine, except for the small letterboxed picture). But if you really want a transporting experience, head to Century Centre Cinema, get plenty of snacks (preferably something spicy) and settle in for nearly four hours of sporty South Asian fun.

Gracy Singh (from left), Aamir Khan and Rachel Shelley star in "Lagaan," which features colorful song-and-dance numbers that look and sound best in surround sound and on a huge screen.

3 1/2 stars
"Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India"
Directed and written by Ashutosh Gowariker; photographed by Anil Mehta; edited by Ballu Saluja; production designed by Nitin Chandrakant Desai; music by A.R. Rahman; produced by Aamir Khan. A Sony Pictures Classic release; opens Friday at the Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. Running time: 3:45. MPAA rating: PG (language and some violence).
Bhuvan.....Aamir Khan
Gauri.....Gracy Singh
Elizabeth.....Rachel Shelley Capt. Russell.....Paul Blackthorne

Monica Eng is a Chicago Tribune staff reporter.

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