Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India is a big budget 2001 Bollywood production, nominated for an Academy award. I knew little about it when I ordered it, as I was just trying to see all the foreign film nominees, and it held many surprises for me, most of them very good. A long movie that was a lot of fun. I originally wrote this on April 16, 2002.
Lagaan, nominated for the 2002 Foreign Language Oscar, is an Indian film set during the British occupation of India in the 1800s. Lagaan is the tax the rulers place on the peasants, and it has just been doubled. In this time of drought, things look pretty grim for the people. Then they are challenged by the occupying British soldiers - win a match of cricket and the lagaan is canceled for 3 years. Lose, and it is tripled. Of course, the bet is accepted and the race is on to learn the "Whitey's" game.
Lagaan is one of those movies I rented (from DVD Overnight) knowing very little about, besides picking it to win the Oscar. And it turned out to have a couple of surprises. The first of which is that it is one of those stealth musicals, in that I didn't know at all they were going to break out in singing. I was first tipped of when I noticed credits for lyrics and choreography! But the music was fascinating and very memorable, especially for a foreign flick.
The other surprise was its length. I knew I was in for a long movie when it broke for an intermission! It turns out the movie is 225 minutes long, or nearly 4 hours! But it was a worthwhile four hours, all in all. The acting is pretty solid, especially by the two lead, Gracy Singh in her movie debut and Aamir Khan, who has a long list of credits to his name. The cinematography is wonderful and the dances are a fascinating look at a new culture.
The movie did have a number of problems, though. In many ways it is a paint-by-numbers love and "big game" movie, with all the standard elements, for better or for worse. A love triangle, treachery by the spurned paramour, underdog pulling out the victory (I suppose I should say "spoiler", but you have to know they win in the end, right?), and even social justice when an Untouchable is called on to be the last member of the team, all the parts are there, albeit done very well. And the fact the whole movie turns on a cricket match, in all its mysterious ways, makes it a little hard to figure out for this American viewer anyway. While there is some explaining of the rules, due to the fact the Indian team has never played it before, much is left unsaid and so some of the climatic moments during the game get lessened. I suppose it is only right that a very long movie wrap itself around a very long game - three days to play the life or death match.
Other problems include a pretty bad transfer to DVD, replete with film scratches and artifacts. And the subtitling choices were odd in that even the scenes played out in English were subtitled, which was somewhat disconcerting. And of course I imagine the songs were much more poetic in Hindi than in the English subtitles, so as soon as I figured out the gist of the song, I turned the subtitles off and just absorbed the wonderful rhythms and exotic voices.
But in the end it was a nice way to spend four hours. The characters were memorable enough that you could keep them separate in your mind, which can often be a problem with foreign films. There is an overwhelming use of color, with reds, yellows and oranges saturating your visual sense. And, like I said, the songs are all fun to listen too, and they complement the movie perfectly. And it prompted us to have a wonderful Indian dinner last night!