Since so many of you are probably recovering from the scintillating and rare tie between England and India in the Cricket World Cup (England needed two runs on the last ball but only managed one), I thought that I would take up my bi-weekly space to recommend one of the best sports movies ever: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001).
Two things make this lengthy Bollywood feature a must see for anyone. First, while it does indulge in the melodramatic tropes that riddle almost all sports films (underdogs, obstacles, impossible odds, villainous opponents), Lagaan does the melodrama as well as can it can be done. We genuinely want the underdogs to succeed and see the villains receive their rightful humiliation. Secondly, and most importantly, this film does a tremendous job of explaining the basic rules and parameters of the sport to the viewer who may be uninitiated into the Byzantine world of cricket. When I visited England a decade and a half ago, more than one cricket fan informed me that it would be useless to try to learn the rules; teaching string theory to a four year old would be easier.
Despite its subtitle, Once Upon a Time in India, the film is not an Indian or Bollywood style Western, nor does it owe much of a debt to Sergio Leone and the Italian Westerns. Rather, it is a big, bold Bollywood production, music and dance included, that seeks to tell a nationalistic Indian tale of rebellion against their English colonial oppressors. Nothing sells better on the Asian subcontinent, or other parts of the former British Empire, than the defeat and demise of the Union Jack. (I have always suspected that this is one of the reasons that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise sells so well world wide. Watching the British Navy get blown to bits is a hoot for many.)
Set in Victorian India, Lagaan tells the story of a small Indian village that is being slowly bled to death through the collection of taxes, lagaan, by the British authorities. At every turn the British humiliate and denigrate the Indians, be they Rajah or untouchable. The British soldiers and Indian villagers eventually make a bet; they will play a cricket match. If the villagers win, no lagaan. If the British soldiers win, triple lagaan. After initially thinking that the game so beloved by the British is a foolish, childish endeavor, the Indian villagers find that they possess the skills to compete, and they find a way to turn the most British of customs into an Indian creation. In this manner, Lagaan retells a common post-colonial sports story: the colonized take that which the colonizers hold dear and turn it against them while creating a new sense of identity that can only be forged within a colonial context. The West Indies and Australia are quite familiar with such narratives.
And beyond recounting a colonial history, the production of Lagaan tapped into and played on a more recent history of violence and conflict within the Indian subcontinent. This movie was released shortly after India and Pakistan, enemies ever since partition, came as close to a nuclear war as any nations ever. Divisions between the nations and their majority Hindu and Muslim populations had rarely been more inflamed. Conscious of this, Lagaan employs Aamir Khan, arguably Bollywood’s most famous Muslim actor, to serve as the hero of the film and the catalyst for a larger sense of Indian national identity. Khan is able to use his elegant and rustic good looks and bottomless charisma to convincingly portray a young villager, Bhuvan, capable of rallying his people to the cause. As he does so, Bhuvan gathers men from every stratum of Indian society: Sikh warriors, mystics, untouchables, farmers, and everyone in between. According to the logic of the film, divisions within India cannot prevent the nation from solidifying around its larger purpose: a united India capable of defeating the British. Muslims and Hindus might have severe disagreements, but neither of them can be a bad as their pasty colonial overlords.
Paul Blackthorne, who has been relegated to television duty for the majority of his career, does an exceptional job of depicting a ruling British commander who is immensely easy to hate. Blackthorne’s Captain Andrew Russell is quite simply an asshole, but he is everything you would want in an asshole: cocky, talented, ambitious, cunning, resourceful, hateful, and racist. He even possesses that smarmy mustache that can only indicate a complete asshole. It is fun to watch him suffer in defeat.
Yet it is even more gratifying to watch Bhuvan and his village team triumph. Like any cliched sports film, Lagaan waits until the last bowled ball to determine the outcome upon which the figurative survival of India depends. The film makes it impossible to not root for this most formulaic of outcomes.
Lagaan‘s simple drama works, and it is pleasurable. One of the reasons that the formula here does not grate on the viewer is that it is not rushed. At 224 minutes (which do run rather crisply) Lagaan provides plently of temporal space for both the narrative delopment prior to the climactic cricket match and the match itself. It allows one to indulge in the giant, bold sensuousness of its Bollywood production, including the music and dance numbers. In the end, Bhuvan leads the team to victory, marries his childhood sweetheart, Gauri (Gracy Singh), and dispatches, defeats, and humiliates the British. All in all, it culminates in a rather perfect Bollywood ending.
So if you have some free time as you wait and see if the West Indies can re-capture their glory days or if Ricky Ponting will lead Australia to their fourth Cup in a row (fifth overall), check out Lagaan.
It is to cricket films what Donald Bradman was to cricket.
(Enjoy the snazzy song and dance number below.)