“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

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