Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

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Movie Review written by: Born Movie Reviews
RT Critics Rating: 9.5/10

Born Movie Reviews' Rating: 8/10

LAGAAN: ONCE UPON A TIME IN INDIA (2001) - Ashutosh Gowariker

If you are an avid follower of my film rankings, you would probably have already noticed that Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi are my two favorite films that feature Indian characters and Indian culture. If I were to pick one more film to join the pair, forming a trio, it would be the nearly four-hour long epic Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. For sure, I have to thank my middle school history teacher for showing me this film. I loved it when I was younger, and I love it still today.

Known as one of the most expensive Bollywood films ever made, Lagaan takes place in the Victorian period of India's colonial British Raj, a time of British rule between 1858 and 1947. The story revolves around Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and the rest of the peasants from a barren village, oppressed by high taxes imposed by their rulers, known as lagaan. After attempting to persuade the British to reduce the lagaan, Bhuvan is instead offered a wager: If the village team defeats the British team in a game of cricket, then their taxes would be cancelled for three years. If the team loses, their lagaan is tripled. Determined and hopeful, Bhuvan accepts the bet, and goes on the rocky road of forming a team and learning an alien game.

Like all other great foreign films, Lagaan manages to jump its own border, out of India's Bollywood to US Hollywood. Even though its entire premise is set in Indian culture and surroundings, its filmmaking and storytelling are sturdy and solid enough to appeal to Americans. The film went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it well deserves it.

The film sets out with a task that will take its entire running time, which is to immerse the audience into the harshly dry but fascinating landscapes and the interiors of villages contrasting to the interiors of British offices. Director Gowariker does not shy away from letting the camera just sit and observe the environment. As a result, the film's production design feels so organically fresh even though the plot is quite familiar and predictable. For sure, the physical setting of the story is a character on its own, similar to classic American westerns. Lagaan takes place in a time of drought, and we can most definitely see the peasants suffer from it, wishing that one day rain will come. Once the betting game of cricket is made, the film undergoes a 90-minute journey of characterization.

The village team is composed of eleven members total, including Bhuvan himself. Yes, each character has his own personality, and the film's narrative really takes its time describing each man and his motivation to join the team. These members range from a fortune teller to an untouchable. As the team grows, so does the village's hope, and so does ours. In fact, there are many moments in this film where your heart will just soar, cheering for the peasants and wishing for their destinies to be changed. As a result, Lagaan efficiently dives back and forth between uplifting and suspenseful. Yes, the final cricket match is suspenseful as hell.

Inevitably, Lagaan also flows into the musical territory, where characters will fall into joyful dancing and singing (yes, the singing voices are dubbed, in a quite funny way too). Though some would argue that these music moments are designed just to appeal to Indian audiences, I would respectfully argue back that I enjoyed them even though I myself am not Indian. Like all musicals, each song progresses the plot forward or reveals something new about character motivation. The lyrics are well written and some songs are quite catchy too. Dancing along to those songs is another question, though.

Although Lagaan runs for almost four hours, and is indeed familiar in storytelling, themes, and characters, it is constantly exciting, entertaining, and tender enough to keep you interested. To quote Richard Roeper, "[I]t is long, but it never sags." With a large persevering cast and a talented director, this film's production is simply too large for crowds to dismiss. It will win you over, and you should let it win you over. The best part about it is the film suits you even if you are not a Bollywood fan to begin with. I'm not a Bollywood fan either. In quoting New York Magazine: "If you've never experienced a Bollywood musical before, seeing Lagaan will be like watching Gone With the Wind without ever having seen a Hollywood movie."

In conclusion, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India is a fantastic film that is entertaining and ambitious, underneath all the familiar content. Filled with drama, romance, music, tension, and hints of political undertones, Gowariker's epic is for sure one of Bollywood's most successful crossover to America. Even better, it is one of the greatest Indian films of all time.

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