Once Upon a Time In India

I’ve just seen a wonderful movie! Lagaan (2001, in Hindi and English with subtitles) is great entertainment. It’s the first real Bollywood movie I’ve ever seen, complete with big dance numbers and an intermission. Set in 1893, it stars Indian matinee idol and tennis champ Aamir Khan (who also produced) as the dreamer of an Indian peasant village, who dares to take on the British occupiers — in a game of cricket.

Every year, all the farmers in the country pay a fee in grain — the lagaan (land tax) of the title — to the rajah who protects them. The rajah in turn hands over most of the lagaan to the occupying British, who supposedly protect the rajahs from each other. But 1893 has been a year of drought, and the peasants can’t spare any grain or they will risk starvation. They beg for mercy from the British captain in charge of the local cantonment (a Snidely Whiplash-style villain, racist and cruel). He offers them a chance out of the deadly lagaan: They’ll play him and his soldiers in a game of cricket, a sport that the peasants have already noticed is a lot like an Indian children’s game. If they win, they pay no lagaan. But if they lose, they pay triple.

And thus the movie becomes a “ragtag bunch” movie — the story of a group of misfits who try to turn themselves into professional athletes playing the game of their lives. It’s three hours and 45 minutes long (Bollywood movies are apparently crazy long) but it never, ever drags.

The dance numbers are great. The music starts and everybody lip-syncs and grooves out Indian-style. It’s nothing like anything this culture offers in film. The dance numbers are like big weird happy music videos that pop up the middle of the movie. And while Lagaan is not quite realistic, it makes its own world where the plot and people work. It’s like Dickens in that the characters are hilariously and wonderfully quirky, the hero is truly noble and good, and the bad guy is unrepentantly bad. You’re pretty sure you know what’s going to happen — the joy is in the amazing trip you take getting there.

I’d suggest watching Lagaan over two nights, stopping at the intermission (“INTERMISSION” will appear in big yellow letters on the screen). The second half is even better than the first half, and be warned — towards the end of the movie there is gut-wrenching suspense of the kind that I have not felt since that scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley where Ripley almost killed Marge with the razor.

Jen gives Lagaan five stars, even though Gauri is chirpy and annoying.

Check out Lagaan‘s first big dance number below. Let the Bollywood show tunes begin!

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