Superstar Aamir Khan threw his production muscle, as well as his smiling face and his muscular midriff, into the most expensive epic in Bollywood history, and the result is a masterful, wonderful film. This film has it all – love, jealousy, betrayal, a moustache-twirling villain, brilliant song and dance, and a climactic cricket match.
In Champaner, a Gujarati village in turn of the century India, there has been no rain for many seasons and the villagers are lamenting. The cantankerous British Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), who runs the local cantonment, is threatening to extract double land taxes - "lagaan" is the Hindi word for the tax - and the villagers can't imagine where the tax will come from with no rain and no harvest. Enter Bhuvan (Aamir). After he crosses the captain, the captain offers Bhuvan a challenge: if he and his villagers can beat the soliders at cricket, they will be absolved of the lagaan for three years. If they lose, though, they will have to pay triple lagaan. To the horror of his fellow villagers, Bhuvan accepts the challenge, and is left with the formidable task of winning the confidence of enough of them to field a side. Their practices are aided by the captain's sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) who teaches them the basics of cricket - and falls for Bhuvan, to the irritation of the village beauty, Gauri (Gracy Singh), who seems to have had her heart set on Bhuvan since girlhood.
As predictable as the outcome is, the film is nevertheless gripping to the very end. As Bhuvan slowly wins over the rag-tag assortment of villagers that will eventually make up the Champaner side, we get to know them in all their quirky diversity - Gauri's father, the severe Brahmin physician Ishwar (Shri Vallabh Vyas); the spirited mute drummer Bagha (Amin Hajee); the slightly insane soothsayer Guran (Rajesh Vivek); the chicken-keeper Bhura (Raghuveer Yadav) and others each bring a crafted and distinct personality to the table - and to the team. The match itself, too, is perfectly paced and thrilling, and comprehensible even to a cricket-ignorant American like myself.
Philip Lutgendorf keenly observes that In Lagaan "the indigenization of cricket becomes a metaphor for the entire Indian Independence struggle." Naturally historical accuracy and dramatic subtlety bow in the service of that metaphor. So Champaner's side is a little too perfectly mixed - Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Brahmin, farmer, worker - and Bhuvan's integration of a young untouchable into the team, over the objections of the more traditionally-oriented members, is rather heavy-handed, as is the cartoonish nastiness of Captain Russell. But none of this detracts from the utter delight of the film, driven by its rousing narrative arc, its bright yet earthy color palate, the charisma and showmanship of its principals, and its outstanding music by A.R Rahman. ("Radha kaise na jale," in which Gauri challenges Bhuvan through an allegorical telling of the mythological relationship between Radha and Krishna, is one of my all-time favorite songs). Lagaan is a remarkable film in any context - no qualification or limiting the comparison to Hindi films. Don’t be alarmed by the length (almost four hours) – Lagaan will suck you in from the very first number and not let you go until the last ball is thrown on the cricket pitch.