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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

Acclaimed film shows the power of faith and the pursuit of dreams against all odds

By Drew Halfnight

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
Directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, starring Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh
(Aamir Khan Productions)

When peasants in the drought-prone Indian province of Champaner are faced with the prospect of double taxation under a tyrannical captain of the British Raj, one villager decides enough is enough. Bhuvan, the film’s self-strong hero, travels to the palace to petition for relief — but is instead provoked into a wager that puts the fate of the province in his hands.

The stakes are high. If our man wins, the captain will waive provincial lagaan (land taxes) for three years. But if he loses, taxes will be tripled and the townsfolk will starve. How will the winner be determined? By a friendly game of cricket, of course!

Released in 2001, Lagaan was hailed by critics as an instant classic and the most accessible Bollywood film in years. Indeed, it has many winning elements: magnificent 19th-century-style costumes, artful cinematography, a compelling score and a period set that includes 56 huts and a hilltop temple built for the film by indigenous farmers in western India.

The film’s two lead actors are utterly alluring: Aamir Khan (Bhuvan) holds us in thrall to the very end of this three-hour, 44-minute epic, and Gracy Singh (Gauri, his love interest), with her plaintive eyes and ardent sensuality, positively lights up the screen during her dance number How Can Radha Not Be Jealous?

The prim colonials, wearing veils of white lace and toting opera glasses and parasols, are the picture of decadence. The effete Captain Russell, who puckers his lips and shrieks, “You bloody slaves will remain crushed under our boots!” is a consummate villain.

The story sets the silly plot turns and melodrama of Bollywood to the tumbleweed tempo of a spaghetti western. As Bhuvan assembles his ragtag band of cricketers and prepares them for the showdown, we could be watching Seven Samurai or High Noon, so taut and deftly sustained is the tension.

A warm, spirited yarn about the power of faith and the pursuit of dreams against bad odds, Lagaan is a crowd-pleaser and a good entry point for anyone unfamiliar with Indian cinema.

Can't find this DVD at your local video store? Try ordering it online at www.chapters.indigo.ca or at www.hmv.ca.
Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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