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You'll Believe a Four-Hour Film About Cricket Can Fly: Lagaan (2001)
July 14th, 2005 1:54AM

If you've never seen a Bollywood movie, but are curious to check one out, I can't think of a better place to start than with 2001's Lagaan, one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, and a 2002 Best Foreign Language Film nominee.

I want to describe Lagaan as "the best four-hour movie about the game of cricket ever made," but that might turn off some folks, in addition to being completely misleading. What Lagaan really is, is an amazing piece of storytelling, an adventure-romance-musical-sports movie in the guise of a rural folktale.

Lagaan takes place in the 1890's, in an India under British colonial rule. Under India's feudalistic system of the time, villages had to pay a yearly tax (called the lagaan) to their provincial Raja, who kicked a percentage of that revenue up to his British rulers. When Captain Andrew Russell, the sadistic, snarling villain of the piece, doubles the lagaan, the drought-striken village of Champaner rises up in protest, with young, hotheaded Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) at the head of the protesters. Captain Russell, spotting a prime opportunity to humiliate and exploit his downtrodden charges, offers Bhuvan and the villagers a wager: if the villagers can defeat him and his men in a game of cricket, he'll waive the lagaan for three years. But if the villagers lose, they'll have to pony up three times the tax, which would destroy the village and send them into starvation.

Anybody want to take bets on whether or not Bhuvan accepts?

Lagaan is a Bollywood film, but you don't have to love Bollywood film to love Lagaan. Despite the lengthy running time, it's quite accessible to Western audiences, and its high production values lend the film a mainstream Hollywood gloss, especially during the brilliantly choreographed and catchy musical numbers. (I dare you to come away from this film without humming at least one of its songs.) Its length gives the film room to encompass a number of genres, which means that romance fans and sports fans can both watch Lagaan and come away happy. It's one of the most complete works of entertainment I've ever seen, with a little something for all tastes.

Even the climactic cricket match, which takes up over an hour of the running time, kept this non-cricket-fan riveted. Let's face it, we all know how a film like this is going to end, but Lagaan somehow takes this predictable resolution and makes it suspenseful and unpredictable. I was quite literally on the edge of my seat during the last half hour, and so deeply in suspense that my palms were sweaty -- and this was the second time I saw the movie. I went into Lagaan as a cricket-hater, and came out of it intrigued by the game and curious to watch a match. What more can you ask from a sports movie, than that it converts people who hate the sport?

Seeing a film like Lagaan makes me wish that mainstream Hollywood came out with more four-hour movies. The expanded canvas gives the filmmaker time to develop characters and relationships in equal measure to the plot, and space to weave a richly layered story. What if a Star Wars movie paused in mid-stream to spend some time examining Mace Windu's home life, and threw in a musical number with dancing Wookies for good measure? Yeah, the very idea of such a thing is probably heretical in this attention-deficient fast-food culture, but Lagaan's unabashed melodrama, steady pace, and emotionality is the perfect antidote to movie buffs tired of today's slick, mass-produced, efficiently-told crap.

The only thing about the film that bothered me had less to do with Lagaan itself than the film industry it represents. Lagaan is accessible in large part because it's so Western in its sensibilities and techniques. From camera angles to dialogue and plot elements, much of Lagaan feels extremely familiar, and if you've seen any of the neorealistic films by Satyajit Ray, you may find yourself wondering what's been lost from Indian cinema, by its eagerness to trade some of its cultural uniqueness for crossover appeal. How ironic is it that a film that so strongly condemns Western colonialism has itself been colonized by Western artistic sensibilities?

The DVD of Lagaan is all the more disappointing because of how terrific it could have been. The print shows a good deal of scratches and wear, every speck and streak of which has been transferred to DVD. I don't understand why the print is in such awful condition, when so much of it is looks amazing. The parts of the screen that aren't marred by scratches are brilliant, boldly colored, and sumptuous. So it's dismaying to see a perfectly lit, visually splendid scene that happens to have one long streak down the middle of the frame. Extras include a text-based cast-and-crew filmography, and a lengthy (almost 20 minute) deleted scene that is entertaining but unnecessary.


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