Presumably, the Victorian-era-set film was deemed to have little potential as a theatrical release until it secured an Oscar nomination, a feat which in and of itself is historic--the first ever Bollywood musical to be so honored from among the hundreds and thousands that preceded it. Even those who have seen the film on DVD already would do well to give it a second glance in a proper theatre, as “Lagaan” truly becomes a different movie when viewed on the big screen--an old-fashioned musical with larger-than-life emotions that cascade over an audience, inviting a sense of wonder and classical romanticism unseen since the days of such American musicals as “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady.”
Literally translated, “Lagaan” means “Tax,” in this case an especially sadistic levy imposed upon a drought-stricken Indian province by Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the English army officer whose cantonment has been given authority over the area. Unfazed by the people's hardship, Russell imposes a double-tax on peasant farmers to make up for the previous year's drought-halved collections. When the villagers plead their case, Russell decides to make a game of it, offering a wager to the charismatic young Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a villager with whom he has already had a run-in. If Bhuvan and the villagers can defeat Russell and his men in a cricket match, the tax will be repealed for three years. If the British win, the tax will be tripled.
Naturally, Bhuvan accepts the challenge, seeing a chance to not only liberate the village from oppression, but to make a statement about Indian pride and independence. His fellow villagers, however, view things less optimistically, and curse him for selling them down the path of sure destruction--until Captain Russell's doe-eyed sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), agrees to secretly teach them the nuances of the game, motivated as much by her budding feelings for Bhuvan as by her sense of justice and fair play. And though Elizabeth's feelings aren't immediately evident to Bhuvan, they are surely not missed by the beautiful Gauri (Gracy Singh), who has long considered Bhuvan hers for the taking.
Against this sprawling melodramatic tapestry unfolds “Lagaan's” colorful wonderland of music, mischief, romance and sport--four hours of pure joy that reaches as high as the most ambitious Hollywood spectacle and soars even higher. The picture's elaborate dance and song sequences and their legions of intricately choreographed performers are beauteous, recalling the work of masters like Vincente Minnelli, Charles Walters, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. There's more than a dash of old Hollywood in producer-star Aamir Khan, too--Tyrone Power and Tom Cruise all rolled up in one. The paradigm at work here, however, is ultimately more Bollywood than Hollywood, for rather than adhere to one classic genre, writer/director Ashitosh Gowriker has adopted two, relying on the conventions of the venerable underdog sports film to occupy the movie's final third in which a three-day cricket match provides as enough suspense and tension for a movie all its own.
While “Lagaan” is first and foremost a triumph for Gowariker, one cannot overlook the stellar achievements of his collaborators--the actors, technicians and artisans without whom the gargantuan Indian film industry would not exist. Rarely in either Hollywood or Bollywood has such magic been wrought so seamlessly by the concerted, coordinated efforts of so many for the enjoyment of all. Starring Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne, Suhasini Mulay, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Raghuveer Yadav. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. Written by Ashutosh Gowariker. Produced by Aamir Khan. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Period musical. Hindi-language; subtitled. Rated PG. Running time: 225 min