Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001)


Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India – IMDb 241/250

From experimental French cinema to Bollywood today as I review number 241 on my IMDb list, Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India, an epic sports film directed by Ashutosh Gawariker.

Lagaan tells the story of a small village in India during the reign of the British Empire, who have to pay an excessive tax, called Lagaan, to the overly confident and harsh British officer Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne). This tax is impossible to pay due to a drought that has fallen on the village.

Due to his arrogant nature and propensity for wagers, Captain Russell offers the chance for the villagers to not have to pay their Lagaan for three years, if they can beat the English officers in a game of cricket, a sport unknown to the locals. If they lose, their Lagaan tax will be tripled.

Bhutan (Aamir Khan), a brave and righteous young man of the village, accepts this challenge, against the wishes of his fellow villagers, and the film tells the story of him convincing the village that not only can they learn the game, but they can win and help end Russell’s oppressive rule.

For people thinking early on, you know what, I’d love to watch an epic cricket drama, (perhaps you watched the T20 World Cup recently), I warn you now; the film is nearly four hours long.

Knowing this going in I watched the film in three parts, and to my great surprise, I really enjoyed it.

The film looks beautiful

The film looks truly beautiful

From the beginning I knew I would have never seen anything like Lagaan, as I hadn’t watched a Bollywood film before. The length of the film and your enjoyment of it will probably come from how much you can stand the singing and dancing that interjects throughout this movie.

At first I really enjoyed it. The energy, drama and excitement that came through these musical pieces are incredible, but to be honest after one or two they did begin to sound the same. If you love musicals I am sure you would enjoy this, but ultimately it wasn’t really for me.

Your knowledge and enjoyment of cricket may also affect how you feel about this movie. I myself am a huge fan of the sport, so when I heard this film culminates in a big cricket match, I was excited. Never before have I seen cricket used as a cinematic tool, and as a sports film Lagaan really worked. It had all the troupes of a good sports flick, with some added Bollywood passion.

The film would have been enhanced if they got David Lloyd to do commentary

The film would have been enhanced if they got David Lloyd on commentary for the cricket

Gawariker manages to build a real sense of excitement for this cricket match, with genuine repercussions surrounding the winner, so as an audience we truly root for the villagers. And unlike other sport films I have seen such as Mean Machine or Wimbledon, the actual cricket looks realistic, unlike the football and tennis in those films which looks very superficial.

Gawariker also does a wonderful job of given each of the villagers a unique personality and purpose, which isn’t easy when you have such a large cast of characters. From Bhuvan’s bravery to Guran’s (Rajesh Vivek) eccentricity as a prophet, each villager has a role not just in the team but in the film, making the movie more rounded and easier to invest in, which isn’t easy when there are people passionately singing about clouds.

However the same can’t really be said about the English cast. Paul Blackthorne is quite simply the troupe of an English baddie, well-spoken but brash and overly confident. Rachel Shelley as his sister Elizabeth plays a woman whose characters sole purpose seems to be to show that not all of the English were evil, which does give the film some balance but isn’t very subtle. The fact that every other Englishman in this seems to be aggressive and horrid really emphasizes this.

Overall though I have to say I was surprised by how much I did enjoy this. It had a fun cricket match, some fantastic vocal performances even if the acting wasn’t anything to shout home about, and for such a long film didn’t feel that much of a drag. (I would recommend doing what I did though – watch this in parts).

I don’t know if I would be in a hurry to watch it again, but is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants their first taste of Bollywood cinema.

My Rating: 7/10


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