February 26, 2002 -- When one thinks of the sports movie genre, complete with the cliché of the "big game" one does not think of India, or of cricket, or of song and dance numbers, but "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India," a rare Indian entry into the best foreign film Oscar race this year, is all of that, and more. You might not think this is cricket, but apparently this is the way things are done in India's massive movie industry.
I went to see this movie on a big screen television hooked to a DVD player over at the University of Wyoming last week. The screening was sponsored by a foreign students association. Plenty of students from India showed up. While one guy went home to fetch some audio cables (they thought a DVD player works just like a VCR), one fellow from India explained the rules of cricket to us. It was the short version. The rules of cricket are enormously complex, like the rules of croquet or baseball. The explanation helped. I've seen people play the game before, but couldn't make much sense of it. It is a little like baseball, but a lot different, too.
Anyway, the movie, set in the 1890s, is all about this big cricket game, between the villagers of Champaner and their English masters from a nearby cantonment commanded by the mean-spirited, arrogant Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne). The villagers are led by Bhuvan (played by well-known Indian actor Aamir Khan). At stake are taxes, called Lagaan. If the villagers win, they pay no taxes for three years. If the British win, the villagers must pay triple taxes. The drought-stricken villagers really can't afford to pay any taxes since there hasn't been enough rain to support any crops in nearly two years. The trouble is, the English are experts at cricket, and the villagers don't even know the rules of the game. The game becomes a struggle for life itself for the impoverished villagers, as well as for a small measure of freedom.
The well-known cliché of the "big game" finale is well-known to American audiences ("The Mighty Ducks," "The Bad News Bears," "Major League," "Angels in the Outfield," etc.). This film has the same cliché but it takes forever to get to the big game. This film is three and three-quarters hours long. There is a lot of bickering among the villagers over whether they should even play. There is a lot of social and political stuff about how evil the British rulers are. There are political and religious subtexts to the story. There is a big scene involving the morality of the caste system. There is a love triangle between Bhuvan, the pretty villager Gauri, and a pretty English woman, Elizabeth Russell (captain Russell's sister, played by Rachel Shelley). There is a traitor and there are some big musical song and dance numbers. In short, there is a lot more going on than just a cricket game. The film tries to take on not only the issue of colonial rule, but thousands of years of social and religious problems, all in one long film.
The acting is not subtle, but is pretty effective for the most part. The hero is very heroic and the villains very evil. The musical numbers are very strange. The sound in the film is normal until it gets to the musical numbers. All of a sudden, it sounds like the microphone is stuck in the bottom of a barrel. The voices retreat behind the instruments, and the sound mix is very odd. Everything sounds completely processed and artificial. As soon as the music ends, the sound goes back to normal, and everything sounds fine again. I don't know if this is a normal kind of sound mix for an Indian film or not, since I've only seen a couple of Indian films, Bandit Queen and Boatman. One of the Indian guys at the screening said "Bandit Queen" is "not a real Indian film." He did not explain himself, but "Bandit Queen" does star Indian actors, has an Indian director and producer, it is set in India and is about a real person who lived in India. Go figure. Maybe it doesn't have enough of those funky-sounding musical numbers.
Anyway, I'm recommending "Lagaan" for anyone who has nearly four hours to sit through it (there is an intermission). It is an interesting film. It will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about cricket and there's something of spirit of India in it as well. It is an entertaining way to learn a little about the history and culture of the second most populous country on earth. Jolly good cricket game and funky music, too. This film rates a B.
The DVD comes with a widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Available audio tracks include English and Hindi. Subtitle selections include English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Thai. Extras include a web link and deleted scenes. I would not have thought there would have been any deleted scenes.
Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.