Editor’s note: Just prior to press time, the opening date for Lagaan had been postponed to July 26 at the Broadway Center.
The problem with Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India is not that it’s set in India, or that the dialogue is mostly in Hindi, or even that it runs a daunting three hours and 45 minutes. In fact, for a whole lot of that time, there’s really not a single problem with Lagaan at all—it’s one of the most rambunctiously, eclectically entertaining films you’ll find at any length. Only about halfway through does the problem rear its ugly head—a game played with a ball, a bat and wooden wickets. It’s cricket, and if you’re like most Americans, watching cricket will be like … well, like trying to understand Hindi without subtitles.
Imagine trying to appreciate a typical American baseball film if you’ve never watched the game before in your life. The rules make no sense, and something that looks like it should be detrimental to one team—say, a sacrifice fly—inexplicably actually benefits that team. Now imagine that nearly two full hours of screen time involve the playing of that game.
The entire structure of Lagaan rests on the playing of one cricket match, and it’s testimony to the appeal of the rest of the film that the game’s perplexing rules don’t sabotage an uninitiated viewer’s entire experience. Set in 1893 India, Lagaan finds the province of Champaner facing a crisis. Already burdened by the British policy of lagaan—taxing inhabitants a fixed quantity of grain from each harvest—the residents of Champaner learn they must pay double lagaan during a year of drought.
Realizing that his countrymen will starve if they must surrender so much grain from such a potentially small harvest, bold Champaner resident Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) accepts a challenge from local British administrator Capt. Russell (Paul Blackthorne). If a Champaner cricket team can defeat a British team at a game the Indians have never played before, the province will not have to pay the lagaan for three years. If the British win, the lagaan will be tripled.
It’s the classic sports movie setup of underdog vs. cocky champion, but Lagaan isn’t content to rest on one crowd-pleasing premise. Director and co-writer Ashutosh Gowarkier offers a romantic triangle between Bhuvan, local girl Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Capt. Russell’s visiting sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). He’s got vibrant musical dance numbers. He’s got high-caste Indians learning to live in harmony with untouchables and the grand drama of an indigenous people taking on imperialist oppressors. You’d have to throw in a courtroom scene to guarantee more knee-jerk emotional response.
But jerk my knee if the whole thing doesn’t add up to one big pleasure. Every individual element offers its satisfactions, from Blackthorne’s sneering villainy to the sweeping beauty of the choreography. Bhuvan’s ragtag team includes a wonderful collection of characters like the raving prophet Guran (Rajesh Vivek), while Khan himself exudes the kind of screen charisma most actors would kill for. Eager-to-please films often reek of desperation. This one sparkles with effervescent energy even as it creeps up to the two-hour intermission.
And then it’s time to play a whole lotta cricket. The Champaner team—which has never seen the game before—needs to learn how to play first, which makes it doubly frustrating to try to piece the rules together while watching the climactic contest. Why does a cricket bowler appear to be able to hit opposing batsmen with impunity? What’s the deal with at-bats that require a single in order to continue uninterrupted? What’s the consequence when a batter swings and misses at a ball that doesn’t hit a wicket? If the only thing that matters to you is which team jumps up and down at the end to signify that they’ve won, such details may seem trivial. After nearly two hours, though, nothing seems trivial.
Is it ridiculous to expect an Indian film to hold a viewer’s hand through the rules of cricket? Perhaps just as ridiculous as it might be for an American film to have a character describe balls and strikes. It’s simply a shame that a film with so many delights to offer an American audience will crash into this brick wall of viewer confusion even as it’s charming the socks off them. Instead of the home run it could have been, Lagaan becomes merely a ground-rule double … or a four-run … or whatever it is they call it.