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With: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne
Written by: Ashutosh Gowariker
Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker
MPAA Rating: PG for language and some violence
Language: Hindi, English, Awadhi with English subtitles
Running Time: 224
Date: 06/15/2001

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bollywood Ending

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The term "Bollywood" supposedly was coined some time ago by an unnamed journalist to refer to the popular, mainstream films that make up most of India's prodigious output -- the largest in the world -- but not to be confused with art films like Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy or Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! The films follow a strict formula, each running at least three hours and each containing approximately six song-and-dance numbers. Overt sex and violence is frowned upon. Despite their popularity, Bollywood films rarely -- if ever -- appear at mainstream American theaters. The closest we've come lately is Terry Zwigoff opening his brilliant Ghost World with a musical number from 1965's Gumnaam. But specialty movie houses exist throughout the Bay Area, and one wonderful little Indian shop on Valencia Street has a mountain of videos available.

Now Ashutosh Gowariker's terrific Lagaan, subtitled Once Upon a Time in India, opens today at the Lumiere in a kind of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fashion; it's a slightly bigger-budget package with higher production values designed to be a breakthrough without betraying its origins. But at four hours (with an intermission), it's not nearly as slow as Crouching Tiger, which alienated many hard core kung-fu fans with its artiness and dull stretches. On the contrary, Lagaan is crackerjack entertainment -- nonstop romance, music, suspense and action. I can't vouch for the die-hard Bollywood fans, but I doubt anyone could deny the movie's rich pleasures. It takes a cue from Hollywood's dream factory and shames most of Hollywood in the process.

It's the 1890s, and Great Britain controls India. A British outpost run by the evil Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne, who looks like a squinty Billy Zane) has declared a tax -- called "lagaan" -- on the local villages, forcing them to hand over a certain amount of their crops, regardless of how good or bad the harvest has been. Matinee idol Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, the village hero who attempts to plead with Russell to withdraw the tax during a drought year. Instead, Russell challenges Bhuvan and his village to a cricket match. If the villagers win, the tax is lifted for three years. If they lose, they pay triple lagaan. The bulk of the movie shows the villagers training for the big game, and the final 80 minutes of the film is devoted to the game itself. Of course, the usual love triangle rears its head, between the village girl Gauri (Gracy Singh), who has loved Bhuvan since they were children, and Russell's sister, the Englishwoman Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who sneaks away to help teach the villagers the rules of the game and learns to speak Hindi with amazing rapidity. In addition, the jealous, jaded lover (Yashpal Sharma) temporarily throws a monkey wrench in the works by collaborating with Russell and helping to throw the game. The movie also explores political and class relations by building its team from a variety of citizens, from a mystic to an "untouchable."

I knew absolutely nothing about cricket before I saw this movie, and I had assumed it was similar to baseball. (I was wrong.) But without talking down to us or explaining the rules in overwritten dialogue, the movie makes us absolutely aware of the game's intricacies by the picture's final, tense minutes. Somehow director Gowariker makes all this work in a speedy, lively way. Like the recent German film In July, he borrows genre movie cliches and breathes one more burst of life into them. It helps that he has four hours to relax and tell his story; nothing ever seems forced or rushed.

Without a doubt, the six musical numbers are the movie's high points. American viewers may scoff at the sound quality, which suddenly changes to studio sound complete with full orchestration and an echo track, but the songs burst with life -- they're undeniably wonderful. Lagaan was nominated for last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, but, along with the similarly enjoyable Amélie, it lost to the good but overrated No Man's Land, which packed a political message. I feel sorry for those voters who drool over the idea of messages in films and sneer at having a great time.

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