LAGAAN is an Indian movie nominated for Best Foreign Language Academy Award. Set in 1893, it tells the true story of a little village protected by a British military compound. The villagers chafe under the high taxes, or lagaan, that the British charge for protecting them. One villager, played by Aamir Khan, takes pleasure in standing up to the British. One day, he incenses the British commander, who challenges the villagers to a cricket game. If they win, the villagers won’t have to pay the taxes for three years. If they lose, they have to pay triple the taxes.
LAGAAN is worth watching for the cultural insights it gives into Indian culture. It refutes the caste system and the religious divisions which have crippled India for so many years. The writer of LAGAAN deserves commendation for the way he seamlessly brought together all the elements of Indian filmmaking and used them to tell a powerful, but simple, story. To achieve its goals, however, LAGAAN reduces the British to the same type of stereotypes that they used to reduce the Indians and even extols the Hinduism which has kept the country in bondage for centuries.
(H, PC, Pa, B, M) Ultimately humanist worldview with revolutionary Communist undertone about villagers uniting to overthrow the oppressor and, in the process, bringing together Indian Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and untouchables who at best disdain each other and at worse hate each other, strangely combined with appeals to a sovereign God, prayers in the name of Allah and a lengthy focus on the local village Hindu temple containing statues of Krishna and his adulterous consort, Radhu, both of whom, it should be noted, in Hindu mythology are married to other people (the plight of Krishna and Radhu are reflected in the unrequited relationship between the British commander’s sister and the village hero, and the sister even succumbs to Hindu religious markings); 21 obscenities and three missuses of God's name and lots of appeals to God, which can either be construed as exclamations or curses; some graphic violence with a British soldier beating and kicking an Indian worker and several instances of British soldiers crippling or hurting Indians and the threat of a lynch mob; lots of romantic scenes but nothing salacious; upper male nudity and some skimpy costumes but, again, nothing salacious; minor alcohol use; several possibilities of smoking hallucinogens; and, cruelty, oppression, starvation, and revenge.
Indian movies, like Indian subcontinent and Indian food, throw everything into the plot. Drama, comedy, vast musical numbers, romance, war, faith, intimate relationships. Innumerable spices are heaped on the storyline and, thus, for many people they are an acquired taste.
Many years ago in India, I remember one movie lasting for what seemed to be four or five hours, perhaps more. Although LAGAAN is three hours and 45 minutes, it has successfully traveled beyond the borders of India to be critically acclaimed around the world, to do well at the box offices of Europe and even to be nominated for an Academy Award in Hollywood this year. The key to its success is in no small part due to its charismatic and affable, and very talented star, the Tom Cruise of India, who can also sing and dance, Aamir Khan. In real life, Aamir is a very pleasant, humble man with two children, who appears nothing like a star. On the screen, he is an incredible talent.
The movie tells the purportedly true story of the little village of Champaner in 1893 in India. Next to the village is a British cantonment. A narration sets the stage. The British have played one rajah off against the other and demand draconian taxes in agricultural goods and services called lagaan from the villages they protect from the inter-tribal warfare they instigate. Compounding the lagaan problem, rain has not fallen for months.
In the midst of this, Captain Russell, the British commander of the cantonment, tells the rajah of the area that he is doubling the lagaan! Everyone in the village is distressed and breaks into heartfelt song chronicling their oppression and the need for rain. This and the succeeding musical numbers cover a vast, musical canvas in traditional Bollywood fashion.
One young villager, Bhuvan, takes pleasure in standing up to the British. He even ruins Captain Russell’s hunt by scaring away the antelope. When the villagers go to appeal to their Raj, Bhuvan interrupts a British cricket game and incenses Captain Russell. Russell decides to trap the villagers in an impossible situation. He challenges them to a game of cricket. If they win, they won’t have to pay the lagaan for three years. If they lose, they have to triple the lagaan.
The villagers hate Bhuvan for getting them into this mess. Only one young pretty girl, named Gauri, says that she has faith in him. Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, also has her eye on Bhuvan. Gauri is jealous. This triangle is reflected in the story of Krishna and his consort, Radhu, who love each other, but both are married to someone else.
Elizabeth sneaks off from the British cantonment to teach the villagers how to play cricket. She even learns their language. Slowly but surely, people come to join with Bhuvan and raise their fist against the oppressor. Bhuvan even lets a Muslim, a Sikh and, oh horrors, an untouchable, join the cricket team. Circumstances and necessity wipe away centuries of class and religious animosity. To add spice to the story, Captain Russell has recruited a spy in Bhuvan’s ranks.
The second half of the movie is probably the most exciting cricket game that’s ever been seen on the big screen. The unpredictable outcome changed history.
LAGAAN is powerful entertainment, which is worth watching for the cultural insights it gives into Indian culture. Unlike most of Bollywood’s product, it has a modern sensibility. It refutes the caste system and the religious divisions which have crippled India for so many years. It tells this vast story and makes its points in many ways, through the love triangle between Bhuvan, Gauri and Elizabeth, through the stories of the Hindu God Krishna, through the magnificent song and dance numbers, through the cruel racism of the British, everything contributes to the call to the villages of India to unite to throw off their oppressors.
Of course, in this vast mulligatawny stew, there are a few flaws. Looking at the violence between Hindus, and Muslims, Christians and untouchables in India today, anyone would realize that these are problems that cannot be wished away in a movie. The peasants of India unite message worked briefly for Nehru and his Communist leaning buddies, but in the end it brought more devastation to the land as the government replaced the rajah and the British oppressor, sometimes with more cruelty than the previous oppressors. In other words, LAGAAN is a political fairy tale with a good feel-good ending. If only it were so.
To achieve its goals, LAGAAN reduces the British to the same type of stereotypes that British and American movies reduce the Indians. Even so, there’s something compelling about seeing this story from the completely opposite point of view of GUNGA DIN, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other British and Hollywood epics on India. However, it is all too easy to hate these Brits, and, it’s a wonder how the British Empire lasted so long after watching the success of the villagers in LAGAAN.
The confusion between the different religious sentiments is a sub-category of the politically correct view toward the political problems. These myriad of Hindu gods have always been part and parcel of the problems in India. Sacred cows look attractive in the movie, but in real life they wander the streets like ghosts, while the people die next to them for want of a simple meal.
One of the bright spots in the movie is the love story between Gauri and Bhuvan. When Elizabeth is removed from the equation, which is most of the time, their romance is innocent, sweet, attractive, and refreshing. What a joy it is to see a relationship which is not built on fornication.
The writer of LAGAAN deserves commendation for the way he seamlessly brought together all the elements of Indian filmmaking and used all of them to tell a powerful, but simple, story. The Indian music is sometimes jarring, only because it is alien to Western sensibilities of harmony and rhythm and the songs are lip-synced and overdubbed. There are a few cuts which seem to jump and, again, this is a cultural affectation. A couple of the characters, including some of the British, needed more direction. Their staged movements recall the earlier, highly stylized method of acting in Indian movies. The leads, however, are surprisingly natural and convincing, even in situations such as the strange musical numbers, which would never occur in reality.
Although the violence is low key, and there’s no nudity or sex, LAGAAN is not a movie for younger children. First, it is too long for many, and secondly, it has some very confusing but important issues which need to be discussed, especially the impact of false philosophies and false religions on a culture. Older children and adults, though, could benefit from seeing LAGAAN and may even love it. The audience at the Academy Award screening was entranced by the movie.
Since You’re Here…
We’re sustained by donations averaging about $25. Only a tiny portion of our readers give. If everyone reading this right now gave $7, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. That’s right, the price of one movie ticket is all we need. If Movieguide® is useful to you, please take one minute to keep it online and growing. Thank you.
Movieguide® is a 501c3 non-profit and all donations are tax-deductible.