When I visited India in 2009, I expected to see a couple of dozen first-run films playing concurrently at the cinemas. I found, however, that only about 3 new films normally screen at one time. Perhaps that’s why Bollywood filmmakers make their films so long; it’s a unique event. Yet, I couldn’t imagine how a cricket movie called “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” released in 2001, could remain interesting for its full 224 minutes. However, the film remains riveting and I could not find a dull moment.
Aamir Khan stars as a village farmer in the 1880s named Bhuvan who brashly accepts a cricket match against a team fronted by the arrogant British provincial commander, Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Captain Russel promises to cancel taxes (“lagaan”) in the province if the Indians win, and triple them for one year if the Indians lose. That’s a life and death matter for the poor province; but Bhuvan, who doesn’t even know the game of cricket, puts together a motley group of villagers to play the game. Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), disgusted by her brother’s arrogance, decides the teach the game to the Indians. This creates conflict with the Captain, and it also leads to her falling for Bhuvan. Another complication includes Bhuvan’s jealous sweetheart Gauri, played by Gracy Singh.
The director, Ashutosh Gowariker, weaves together the many characters (there are 11 players on each side of a cricket team), the political situation, the conflict of the love interests, and the exciting cricket match. It’s not an easy feat, especially because the Indians are such overwhelming underdogs and they start from such a low position. They must overcome their own problems before they can challenge a team as powerful as the British.
Lagaan’s high production values, catchy songs, and cricket action keep it constantly interesting. I’d count this among the best sports movies I’ve seen, with excellent footage of the deciding cricket contest. Only a long movie could successfully capture the long and tense duration of an important cricket match. In addition, the players on the village side managed to focus so intently on the game that their characterizations gained in effectiveness. Specifically, the intense portrayal by Rajesh Vivek as the village fortune teller (Guran) heightened our expectations of his batting prowess during the match; his wild and powerful swings gave us hope with the match very much in doubt.