Did you see Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies? Did you see the extended versions? If so, then there is no reason why you would not be able to sit through a movie that is three hours and forty-four minutes long. About playing Cricket! Yes, Cricket. Got your attention now, haven’t I?
The year is 1893, and India still has fifty-four years left of British rule. Military stations, known as cantonments, provide protection for local Rajas (princes) in exchange for taxes (lagaan) that end up coming from the villages. The village of Champaner and surrounding villages had been paying with portions of their harvest, but a prolonged drought had made doing so extremely difficult.
Captain Andrew Russell had cancelled the tax for the previous year, but he is feeling less generous this time around. Raja Puran Singh requests that Andrew make it possible for his villagers to pray at a temple located in a rival Raja’s territory, in hopes that that might break the drought. Andrew says that he can persuade the other Raja, but only if Puran Singh violate his Brahmin vegetarianism. When the Raja balks, Andrew decides to make up for cancelling last year’s tax by doubling this year’s tax. This will absolutely destroy the non-Brahmin farmers.
The villagers of Champaner are quite unhappy to hear this. Because it will destroy them. One villager named Bhuvan leads a group of them to talk to the Raja. When they go to see him, he is busy watching a group of English soldiers playing cricket. They are told that the will have to wait until the end of the game to talk to him.
They are unfamiliar with cricket, but Bhuvan thinks that it looks similar to the game that they used to play as kids. When the ball rolls over to them, Bhuvan picks it up and gets into a fight with one of the players. This gets the attention of everyone, including Andrew and the Raja. Bhuvan apologizes to the Raja for interrupting the game, though he refers to the game itself as stupid.
When the game is over, the villagers go to the Raja and beg for him to cancel the lagaan again, but he says that his hands are tied as well. Andrew overhears their pleas and says there is a way out. Having recognized Bhuvan from earlier when he tried to sabotage Andrew’s hunting trip. He singles out Bhuvan for calling cricket stupid and asks him to agree to a deal. Andrew will cancel this year’s lagaan, along with those for the next two years, for the entire province if the villagers can beat the English at a game of cricket in three months time. The downside is that the villagers will have to pay triple lagaan instead of double if they lose. Bhuvan accepts the deal.
Pretty much everyone in the village is upset at him, believing that he made a bad situation 50% worse. Pretty much the only person who supports him are a little boy named Tipu and Gauri, a young village woman who has a crush on him. Bhuvan eventually gains a couple more supporters and they try spying on another cricket match.
They are spotted by Elizabeth, Andrew’s sister who had recently come to India. She was unhappy at what she thought was the unfair nature of this deal and offers to teach the villagers cricket in secret, through an interpreter.
News of her offer brings a few other villagers to his side. Bhuvan manages to convince a few men that their various skillsets (like swinging a slingshot or chasing chickens) and physical quirks could aide them in certain aspects of the game. Word quickly gets around that one of the villages has challenged the British to a game of something and is wagering their lagaan on the outcome. At first, people from neighboring villages are extremely upset at Bhuvan and try to attack him, but they eventually come around.
Andrew’s superiors are not so happy about this bet, as they feel as if it will set a bad precedent where the Indians will try to get out of payment with wagers. While Andrew assures them that he will win and get triple lagaan that year, his superiors decide that he will personally have to make up for the lost taxes if his team does lose. Also, he will be sent off to Central Africa if he loses. I don’t know how that compares with Western India, but I am guessing that it is meant to be considered bad…ahem…Now with a personal stake in the game, Andrew becomes even more determined to crush the Indians.
Honestly, I had no idea that this movie was going to be about cricket when I first watched it. I figured that it was going to be about some sort of violent uprising. Instead it is about peaceful resistance. This movie is basically fiction based around the issue of the land tax and the introduction of cricket to India.
These days, cricket is a national game. Back then, not so much. This was probably not how cricket was brought to India, and I have been told that the manner of playing is anachronistic. Still, what better way to portray it on film than by having the Indians try to beat the Brits at their own game. Literally their own game.
Lagaan, also known as Once Upon a Time in India, was the first Bollywood movie to make a big debut in the United States. And for good reason. Despite being twice as long as many American movies, being mostly in a language that most Americans do not understand, and being about a subject that few Americans are interested in, it is an extremely enjoyable and accessible to American tastes. Likeable quirky characters (especially Guran the fortune teller), the gathering of a team. Underdogs going against impossible odds. And, of course, sticking it to those snooty Brits.
Lagaan is basically an old-school musical combined with a patriotic sports story. In terms of plot, it provides pretty much no surprises. What it does provide is a crowdpleaser of a movie, and it certainly is pleasing one. Now, why is it such a long movie? Because cricket is a long game. When the actual cricket game (they have to play over three days) starts, the movie still has nearly eighty-seven minutes to go. And most of that is pretty necessary. And, really, the movie does not actually seem all that long. Just do not look at the clock.
Of course, there are a few subplots that could have been cut if really necessary. Maybe the filmmakers could have gotten rid of the first song where the villagers take six minutes to celebrate the appearance of a cloud that ultimately brings rain, but it was nice to see them genuinely happy for once in the movie. There is one rather groan-inducing scene where Bhuvan manages to solve centuries worth of caste discrimination in two minutes. Pfft. Right. There is also a character who is obsessed with Gauri, and this informs his actions for much of the movie. Personally, I would have taken that out of the equation. I get it; sometimes the heart makes us do things that we would not have done otherwise. Yet, it overshadows other valid or understandable reasons.
And this brings me to Elizabeth. Was it really that necessary to have her pining for Bhuvan? Yes, I can acknowledge that he is a handsome and charming man, even if Indian superduperstar Aamir Khan keeps reminding me of Carlton Lassiter from Psych. Still, why could she not have helped the team because she believed it to be the right thing to do, which is what she had been saying all along? And if she had to fall for Bhuvan, couldn’t something actually come of it? The movie could have shaved five or six minutes of the movie that shows her pining for Bhuvan and nothing would be lost. Well, except for that little coda at the end that I suppose was supposed to be a romantic callback, but which I found somewhat infuriating. Some may think that it shows the power of love; not me. Not every woman in the principle cast needs to have a romantic aspect to her story. Isn’t Gauri’s storyline enough? And Elizabeth’s singing in that song just after the halfway point of the movie? Even if I personally prefer her singing voice to that of the general Bollywood singing style, I found it way too jarring.
I will say, though, that one of the reasons why I do enjoy this movie is that the acting from the White actors is pretty good; not necessarily great, but well above competent. Whatever I may think of Elizabeth’s feelings for Bhuvan, Rachel Shelley makes me believe it. Of course, the show belongs to Paul Blackthorn as Captain Andrew Russell. He is a stereotypical moustache twirling British villain and he is having all sorts of fun with it. He speaks Hindi a lot and with confidence, if not competence. While even I can tell that his accent is terrible at times, it does seem that he is actually saying words and not just making sounds that are similar to words. Then again, no one in that area at that time spoke the kind of Hindi that any of the characters in this film speak, so it does not really matter.
Some film critic from Utah said that Rachel’s acting was wooden and that Paul’s was embarrassing. I disagree…well, that song was embarrassing. Sure, these two would not get Oscars for their portrayals here, but I am guessing that this guy had not seen that many Asian films that had White actors in them. If only there were awards for that. Additionally, the character of Andrew’s main superior was amusing too. There is a deleted segment of the film where Andrew arrests some of the Indians and, while including the whole thing would mess up the story, I do wish that some of that could have been kept in. Aside from showing that it was difficult for Elizabeth to win over the villagers, it also showed just how annoyed Andrew’s superiors were at him and his antics. That deleted scene gives a little more context to their rather amused and detached reactions to the events of the game.
In a movie like this, there is bound to be depictions of racial discrimination. The lagaan itself shown to be ripping off the Indian people, moreso than how rich Indians rip off their domestic workers. The British seem to be able to act violently towards Indians with impunity. And there are the epithets. The most used one is Darkie, which actually amuses me a bit, given that much of the main Indian cast has lighter skin than a few of the Indian extras. Or a certain Indian Diplomat. Whatever; that is Bollywood for you. But the Indians are not innocent in talking about the British. New old word of the day: Feringhee. Not just some Star Trek alien, Feringhee may have come from words for Frank or foreigner. In more modern Indian settings, the word came to be an insulting term for the British.
If I made this movie sound both impenetrable and overly cliched, do not let either or both put you off. Despite my few complaints, I really enjoyed this movie. The near-four hours really do fly by thanks to the wonderful characters and the well-done execution of a familiar story. Until then, I highly recommend Lagaan.
WTF ASIA 131: The Clay Bird (Bangladesh: 2002, approx. 93-98 minutes)
Available on…Facebook (?) as Matir Moina.
WTF ASIA 132: Gozu (Japan: 2003, approx. 130 minutes)