LAGAAN (2001)

  • Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
  • Writer: Screenplay by Ashutosh Gowariker, Kumar Dave, and Sanjay Dayma, Story by Ashutosh Gowariker, Dialogue by K.P. Saxena and Ashutosh Gowariker, Music by A.R. Rahman and Javed Akhtar
  • Starring: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne, Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Raj Zutshi, Pradeep Rawat, Akhilendra Mishra, Daya Shankar Pandey, Shrivallabh Vyas, Yashpal Sharma, Amin Hajee, Aditya Lakhia, Suhasini Mulay, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Javed Khan, and Amitabh Bachchan
  • Accolades: Shown at 2001 Sundance International Film Festival, 1 Oscar nomination (Best Foreign Language Film)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix

And now for something completely different… and that something is a four-hour Bollywood musical about cricket, in case you were wondering. This may not seem like your cup of tea, because you have preconceived ideas about Bollywood movies, or because you’re not into musicals, or not into sports movies, or the running time is daunting, or just that you have no idea what the rules of cricket actually are or any desire to learn. If the latter is your concern, I can reassure you that, since many of the characters in the movie are also unfamiliar with the sport of cricket, there are multiple scenes where the rules are explained enough so that we get it, including one scene that starts with a woman drawing a circle in the dirt and saying “this is the field.” As to the other concerns, all I can say is that it all really, really works for me. And if you are, say, someone who likes sports movies, this is the sports movie as epic, as an existential historical struggle. And yes, I do think that most sports movies would be improved with some musical numbers.

Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of Bollywood, sort of the Indian equivalent of Hollywood, based in Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was originally known, hence the name), which remains even today, with movies more of an international business than ever, the 2nd-largest film industry in the world. Its definitive products are these massive romances that occasionally stop for these big musical numbers. They also do lots of other genres of movies, their own thrillers, their own superhero extravaganzas, most of these also with musical numbers. You’ll sometimes hear that there aren’t any movie stars anymore (which is actually a way of saying that even if you have Brad Pitt and George Clooney in your movie you aren’t guaranteed big profits), but there sure as heck are in India. Bollywood movies are often crossover hits these days outside of India, a trend which Lagaan was certainly on the leading edge of, though I confess to not enough knowledge of the details to have any idea of the cause and effect there. I can tell you that for much of my formative movie viewing years, Lagaan was the one Bollywood movie I stood a decent chance of finding on the shelves of my local mainstream video rental place in Ohio.

Speaking of stars, this movie has Aamir Khan, who has been named (several times) by various American publications things like “the Biggest Movie Star in the World.” This may or may not be true, but he is one of the biggest Indian stars, and also one of the highest-profile Muslims in India over the past few decades, with his public comments regarding the latter issue often being treated as national news. It is thus not just for his stardom that Khan, who comes from a prominent family of actors in India, has been named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People on multiple occasions. Another alumnus of this list is A.R. Rahman, who composed the score and songs in Lagaan. Rahman is probably the most prominent Indian musician worldwide, and has defined a sort of modernized version of traditional Indian music. Since Lagaan, he has received multiple Oscar nominations, winning two for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for his work on Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, and also composed the music for an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which is another way of knowing you’ve made it, I suppose.

“Lagaan,” according to the movie’s opening narration by another Bollywood mega-star of his day, Amitabh Bachchan, was the name given to the tax extracted from the Indian common people (as a portion of their harvests) by their British colonial overlords. The story is set in an Indian village in 1893, at the height of British rule. As it hasn’t rained in a few years, the villagers go to beg the local Raja (Kulbhusan Kharbanda) for a break from their taxes. In doing so, they ignorantly interrupt the local British officer’s game of cricket, a game the villagers have never seen before but think is similar to a kids game of their own. In a fit of pique, the lead British officer, Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) challenges the most headstrong of the group, Bhuvan (Khan), to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they are exempted from the tax for three years, but if they lose they’ll pay triple tax. Tired of being kicked around (in some cases literally), Bhuvan agrees.

At first the villagers all despair, believing they have no chance and will all starve if they have to pay triple tax. Only a few, most prominently a bushy-bearded, crazy-eyed fortune teller (Rajesh Vivek) and a large-muscled but mute drummer (Amin Hajee), go along with him and start learning the game. The villagers’ cause is soon bolstered by the assistance of Captain Russell’s headstrong sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who decides that this is all very unfair and agrees to teach them how to play cricket. Over the course of the next hour of movie or so, with Elizabeth’s help, Bhuvran succeeds in getting the villagers on his side and fills out a team of 11 to take on the British officers. Meanwhile, a seemingly unlikely (based solely on our training as western viewers) love triangle develops between Bhuvran, the girl he’s been courting in the village, Gauri (Gracy Singh), and Elizabeth, though Bhuvran himself seems mostly oblivious to the two women’s rivalry for his affections.

Then we get to the second half of the movie, which shows us basically all of a three-day cricket match. This has all of the hallmarks of a final Big Game in a sports movie, except slowed way, way down. Then again, one might say that cricket has all the hallmarks of a sport, except slowed way, way down. Despite the fact that the game takes a solid hour and a half, minimum, I have always found the whole thing riveting. And even if you aren’t familiar with the exact rules of cricket, the movie gives you the drama and the ups and downs in ways that should get across regardless of cultural context. 

Lagaan never skimps on its scope for a moment. There are 11 people on a cricket team, and the movie feels the need to draw each and every one of the players on the village’s team, tell us what parts of cricket they’re good at, give them each motivations for being on the team, and so on. What the movie is not, however, is subtle in any possible way. Few movie villains this side of Snidely Whiplash have been so unrelentingly terrible as Captain Russell (he even has a villainous mustache). In one early scene, the Raja asks him for a favor and Russell agrees, on the condition that the Raja, a vegetarian because of his religion, eat meat in front of him, seemingly because it’s the cruelest thing he can think of in that moment. 

The village team, meanwhile, turns into a very unsubtle metaphor for India uniting to fight colonialism. One of the players is a Sikh, another a Muslim. After realizing that Kachra (Aditya Lakhia), a member of the “Untouchable” caste, can make the ball to crazy spin things because of his particular deformity (this is basically the cricket version of having a crazy curveball), Bhuvan absolutely insists he be on the team, to the horror of the village elders. Most of the rest of the team tries to walk out, but Bhuvan turns them around in one speech (the village elder basically hangs his head and says something like, “You have made us ashamed with your words”). Despite how long this movie is, it uses this sort of shorthand approach to things a lot. Perhaps most egregious is the bit where, when Elizabeth first meets the villagers, she doesn’t speak a word of Hindi, but the next morning she is almost fluent (she says one of her servants taught her).

One way that Lagaan differs from a lot of Bollywood movies is in having prominent parts for “western” actors. Paul Blackthorne, who plays the main villain, is a Canadian actor making his first appearance in a movie here. He has since starred as the title character in the short-lived SyFy Channel series The Dresden Files and been a regular on a few other TV series, among other roles. The movie is primarily in Hindi, and many of the main white actors get a lot of Hindi dialogue, and I have absolutely no idea if they’re any good at it, but they seem game. I actually find it really interesting that, in the handful of scenes among the English characters, they’re of course speaking English, but instead of Hindi subtitles, the movie has Bachchan’s narrator talk over the characters and describe what they’re saying. I can only imagine this is because the movie is assuming that at least some of it’s intended Hindi-speaking audience is illiterate, and wouldn’t be able to read subtitles. One of the actors playing one of the English cricketers, the perhaps-ironically named Chris England, went on to write a book about his experience on the movie as a sort of stranger in a strange land, titled Balham to Bollywood (the former being his hometown in the UK).

I could go on about this movie for a while (I haven’t even gotten into the songs, for example), but I’m pushing the limits of how long I usually like these articles to be. Lagaan is probably the only movie you’ll ever see described in the first sentence of its Wikipedia entry as an “epic musical sports film,” and if that sounds like something that would remotely interest you, consider giving it a try. I thought I’d leave with one of those musical numbers, the big training montage. It lacks the English subtitles from the version on Netflix, but I think you get the point (the lyrics are not very far off from “We’re going to win/We have to keep trying/We can do it,” i.e. exactly what you would guess they are), and somehow without the subtitles the way the movie is completely serious about all of this really comes through. This is no irony here about there being musical numbers in this movie where no American would expect to find them.

One thought on “LAGAAN (2001)

  1. I once attended 4 hours of a cricket match (I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend) and had a good time despite not understanding a lick of cricket, so I could possibly enjoy this movie as well.


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