With audiences prepped by musical references in Ghost World, Monsoon Wedding, and Moulin Rouge—not to mention the occasional Apu-related Simpsons non sequitur—Bollywood finally ventures beyond Jackson Heights with an indieplex re-release of 2001’s Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, timed to capitalize on the film’s Foreign Language Oscar nod. Boasting slickly produced, impeccably choreographed musical numbers, a swarming cast of thousands, and India’s biggest movie budget to date, Ashutosh Gowariker’s nationalist blockbuster is poised to bring the uncomplicated joys of commercial showbiz back to the art house.
Set during the bad old days of the British Empire, Lagaan restages the subcontinent’s struggle for self-determination as a down-and-dirty grudge match between two headstrong alpha males. After the malevolent Captain Russell (snarling Paul Blackthorne) doubles the colonial tax, or lagaan, on a sadistic whim, drought-stricken villagers organize a formal complaint. Prickled by uppity Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), who ridicules an army cricket match, Russell declares a wager. If the villagers can put together their own team and beat the British at a game of cricket, taxes will be lifted for three years. If they lose, the village pays triple. Bhuvan quickly yanks together a ragtag, cross-caste, multi-faith team of Brit-hating misfits with homemade cricket equipment and engages the secret help of the Captain’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). The Indian team’s education is played for both comic effect and dead serious earnestness—equal parts Braveheart and Bad News Bears. (The cricket-training sequences fortuitously provide a crash-course primer for clueless American audiences.)
Lagaan‘s underdog spirit has universal appeal, but the struggles of the peasant poor are a mainstay peculiar to Bollywood. Mainstream Indian commercial cinema’s only other Oscar-nominated feature, Mother India (1957; in 1989, an Academy nod also went to the internationally co-produced art film Salaam Bombay!), dealt with a family crushed under the yoke of a usurious moneylender and featured a musical number in which singing villagers formed a map of India. Mother India cemented female lead Nargis firmly into India’s star pantheon; Lagaan may do the same for actor-producer Khan (last seen stateside in Deepa Mehta’s Earth), who takes a cue from Hollywood leading men cum auteurs by creating an epic around himself. American critics will most likely moon over Bhuvan’s love interest, Gauri (perky, pouty Gracy Singh, whose deep, emotive eyes match the skills of any silent-era starlet), but Khan is the true sex object of this picture. A studly tough-guy hero with righteousness on his side and a devilish, ultra-white, heart-melting smile, he struts and boasts with a winning blend of Tom Cruise cockiness and Tom Hanks virtue.
Lagaan‘s ultimate appeal, however, rests not in its safely antique anti-colonialist politics or Indi-industry star turns, but in its brilliantly composed song-and-dance sequences, the hallmarks of Bollywood’s unique style. Elegantly produced and expressively performed, the six musical numbers crystallize key plot moments into minutely detailed wonders of dreamlike ecstasy. Once the music starts, it hits like a drug, and one wishes it would never end, from the gang’s-all-here introductory strains of “Ghanan Ghanan” to the graceful, neo-traditional love song “Radha Kaise Na Jale” to the sweaty male fight song “Chale Chalo.” Featuring vocals by playback legends Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar, the movie serves up samples of a musical cinema long forgotten in America. Confident and brash, Lagaan may be high-concept New Bollywood, but it plays like well-crafted Old Hollywood.
“Bully for Bollywood: With Lagaan, the Indian Movie Industry Is Poised to Cross Over” by Nita Rao