Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)
Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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In the time of the British Raj, the people of a small princely state are suffering from a drought. A series of events leads to a wager between Bhuvan, a local peasant (Amir Khan), and Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the commander of a British garrison, on a game of cricket. If the British win, the peasants, despite the drought, will have to pay triple taxes. If the Indians win, they will be exempted from taxation for three years. The subsequent events of the film can be predicted by any person who has previously seen a sports film. Bhuvan gathers a team, each member of which has some special contribution to make. The villain acts villainously. The game is played. At first the Indians appear to be losing, but each of member of their team makes his special contribution and the good guys win.

Praised by many critics as a masterpiece, Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan is, in fact, a formulaic sports movie. Nevertheless, though it may be predictable, it is also genuinely entertaining.

The film's central narrative is in itself simple but is complicated by the inclusion of various often melodramatic ancillary elements. The director has, for example, incorporated into the movie communal conflicts, a traitor on the Indian side, and a love triangle between Bhuvan, his local sweetheart, and Captain Russell's sister. In addition to such plot details, Lagaan contains the usual supportive relatives, especially elderly women, and the standard comic character, who, as always seems to be the case, is a chubby, balding man. Some of these elements are well handled, but others are frankly grating.

The film is further burdened by frequent and sometimes questionable didactic intrusions. Lagaan is extremely nationalistic in tone. The foreign British are villains, and all the Indians unite against them, forgetting, as they do so, any tensions that exist among themselves. The director takes considerable pains to show that the Indian cricket team is composed of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, and that it transcends caste, including even an Untouchable. While I do not disparage his attempts to bridge divides between communities, this message is presented in a very heavy-handed way.

Fortunately, the film is not always so dry. The consistently well done dance sequences incorporated in Lagaan enliven the movie and, consequently, prevent its more cumbersome aspects from so weighing it down that it ceases to be enjoyable. Though they are far from the best I have seen in a Bollywood film, they are entertaining and are better than anything from any recent Western film, with the exception of some of the scenes in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge.

Such routines also help to maintain the film's pace. Lagaan is a long movie and is often slow moving. The discovery of the various members of the cricket team necessarily takes up a substantial amount of time, as does each member's demonstration of his special skill, but the dance numbers with which the narrative is interspersed do bring life and vigor back to the film when it begins to lose the viewer's interest.

As a sports movie, with all the clichés and formulaic plot elements common to that genre in the West, Lagaan does succeed. In fact, it is one of the better sports films I have seen.

Review by Keith Allen

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