“Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India” - Ashutosh Gowariker (2001)

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) was a big hit both inside India and internationally.  Released in India under the title Lagaan (meaning “Taxation”), the film was written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and starred and was produced by Aamir Khan (this was the inaugural offering of Khan’s new production company, Aamir Khan Productions).  The film took eight Indian National Film Awards and was nominated for a U. S. Academy Awards Oscar as Best Foreign Film [1].

Actually, Lagaan’s overseas success was somewhat unusual for a Bollywood movie, because such works are often criticized by foreign viewers for being long, melodramatic, and formulaic.  So was this film different in these respects?  Not really. Lagaan is also long (more than 3½ hours), melodramatic, and formulaic, too, but the film is so well crafted that it still offers everyone an outstanding viewing experience [2,3,4,5].

Note that a further aspect of Lagaan that one might imagine could limit the breadth of its popularity concerns a key element of its plot – a cricket match.  In fact the last 80 minutes of the film are devoted to covering a dramatic cricket match, the outcome of which will determine the fates of the principal characters. Most Americans, and probably most citizens of countries that were not once part of the British Empire, have only barely heard of the sport of cricket, but they have never seen it played, and they are unfamiliar with its arcane rules.  And even non-Indians somewhat familiar with cricket might assume that in most parts of the world the intricate game would only be popular among elites.  But cricket is actually very popular across all social strata in India, and I have a number of times seen young boys in Indian working-class neighbourhoods playing pickup cricket on the streets [6].
Lagaan is set in a small town, Champaner, in 1893 during the British Raj.  The way the British overseers operated in those days was that they maintained many local cantonments that tolerated the continued rule of local upper-class rajahs as long as these rulers paid high taxes to their British overlords for “maintaining the peace” in their regions.  But in this film we learn that there have been extensive droughts in Champaner over the last two years, and the impoverished farmers were unable to pay their taxes to the local rajah last year.  This year the drought conditions are the same, but the intolerant commanding officer of the local cantonment, Captain Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne), is now demanding a doubled tax – last year’s unpaid taxes and this year’s too.

We early on get a glimpse of the differences in humanity of a couple of the key players in this story when we see Russell out hunting deer for sport.  While Russell is cruelly trying to gun down with his rifle some deer that he finds in the forest, a local peasant hiding in the bush, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), repeatedly warns the targeted deer to bolt by secretly throwing a stone at them just before Russell pulls the trigger.  The deer suddenly move, and Russell misses his target.  We see that Russell is trying to exploit living things, and Bhuvan is trying to save them.

Later we see Bhuvan leading a group of villagers to visit local Raja Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to beseech him for tax relief.  When they approach the rajah’s palace, they see British officers, including Russell, playing cricket on the palace grounds.  Bhuvan happens to make a casual, derogatory remark about the frivolity of the game, and Russell takes immediate offence.  The British captain challenges the villagers to a high-stakes three-day cricket match.   If the villagers lose, they will have to pay triple the usual tax; but if they win, they will be exempt from paying any taxes for three years.  They will have three months to prepare for the match.

Of course, the chances of the villagers winning such a match are essentially zero, because none of them have ever played cricket before, while the British are experienced players of the game.  But the headstrong Bhuvan, recognizing that the villagers’ situation is hopeless anyway if something isn’t done, feels they have nothing to lose.  So against the wishes of his village comrades, he accepts the wager on behalf of the whole village.

The next section of the film concerns Bhuvan’s efforts to recruit villagers for their cricket team.  He reminds them that cricket has some similarities with their traditional game of gilli-danda.  But for the most part, they’re going to have to learn the game of cricket from scratch.  One of the basic things they have to learn is simply how to catch a ball.

Along the way here, there are occasions for promoting some of the positive themes of the film.  One of these concerns the implicit benefits of engaging in a competitive activity that is played by the rules.  You have to learn the rules and agree to play fair.  This serves as a reminder that the idea of (or at least the emphasis of) fair-play and sportsmanship is one of the great contributions that the British have made to world culture.

Another positive theme of the film, and one that is very important for modern India, is the promotion of the idea that Indians, despite their various cultural disparities, are one people.  This was the idea promoted by Gandhi and Nehru, and it is reflected in this film by Bhuvan’s ecumenical efforts to recruit members for the cricket team.  He convinces his colleagues to set aside their various prejudices concerning caste, class, and religion and to remember that everyone is just a person entitled to the same rights and degrees of respect.  When you are recruiting teammates, the main criteria are skills and capabilities, not caste.  So eventually Bhuvan recruits a team consisting of Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems, and an Untouchables (Dalit).  He even recruits one player (Kachra, the Dalit), whose semi-crippled arm makes him naturally suited for cricket spin-bowling.  Once the team is assembled, it is time for them to engage in earnest practice.

Naturally, there has to be some romantic element in such a movie, and Lagaan is no exception.  Gauri (Gracy Singh) is a beautiful village girl who has her heart set on Bhuvan, and there are many scenes in the film showing their tentatively tender interactions.  Gracy Singh, who plays Gauri, is an excellent dancer, by the way, and her captivating dancing is an artistic highlight of  many of the musical numbers in the movie. 

Of course, we expect some romantic complications, too, and those come from Andrew Russell’s beautiful younger sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who also falls in love with Bhuvan (again an instance of dismissing cultural, national, and class boundaries).  Unlike her arrogant and self-serving brother, Elizabeth is naturally warm-hearted, and she feels her brother’s treatment of the villagers is unfair.  So she secretly sneaks out to the village and teaches the nascent cricket players some basic aspects of the game.  And on one occasion she even manages to come over and give them a real, authentic cricket ball, replacing the makeshift one they had been using.

Finally we get to the three-day cricket match, with each team having one innings (one turn at bat), and that’s what occupies the last 80 minutes of the film.  Andrew Russell wins the coin toss and elects for his team to bat first.  And as you might expect, there are many melodramatic turns to this match. 

One serious problem that comes up for the village squad is when one of their players, Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), betrays his team and begins secretly helping the British team.  Lakha, we learn, has a crush on Gauri and is jealous of her preference for Bhuvan.  Lakha hopes that a village-team defeat will disgrace Bhuvan and thereby enhance his chances for Gauri.  So on the first day of the match, Lakha intentionally drops several catchable balls in the field that could have resulted in outs for the British team.  When Lakha’s perfidy is finally exposed, his teammates want to smash him, but the relentlessly humanistic Bhuvan convinces them to accept Lakha’s repentance and allow him the chance to redeem himself.  And on the second day of the match, Lakha does make some outstanding plays in the field.

The dramatic three-day match eventually winds to a close, and despite the presumed vast superiority of the British team, the outcome comes down to the last ball.  I’ll let you watch the film to see for yourself what happens.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, what makes Lagaan a fine film is the high quality of the production values throughout.  The acting is emphatic and melodramatic, but it suits a narrative like this.  In particular, the persistent frown, presumably connoting concentration, on the part of Aamir Khan works very well here, and this is one of the best performances of that popular actor.    

I also liked the half dozen musical pieces, many of them featuring outstanding solo and ensemble dancing, (my favourite ones were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th pieces) scattered through the first two-thirds of the film.  I have already referred to Gracy Singh’s superb dancing, but mention should also be made of Aamir Khan’s excellent dancing, too.  And overall, the film music by A. R. Rahman is a fine contribution.

In addition, the cinematography of Anil Mehta and the film editing of Ballu Saluja is very professional.   Those, combined with Ashutosh Gowariker’s script, enable the filmmakers to portray a cricket match and make it clear even for the uninitiated.  My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, would be that there was a little too much screen-time devoted to villagers ecstatically celebrating good plays that were made by their team in the field. 

And at the very end of the film when the match is completed, rain clouds form and rain begins to fall, thankfully signalling the end of the long drought.  So viewers can be assured at the close that good times are ahead.

  1. “List of accolades received by Lagaan, Wikipedia, (23 December 2019).    
  2. Dave Kehr, “FILM REVIEW; The Cricketing of an Indian Village”, The New York Times, (8 May 2002).   
  3. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India”, Austin Chronicle, (24 May 2002).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “LAGAAN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA”, RogerEbert.com, (7 June 2002).   
  5. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)”, Combustible Celluloid, (2002).   
  6. “Cricket in India”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2019).   

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