The “song of willow on leather” — as Woody Allen famously described the game of cricket — receives resplendent tribute in “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” a widescreen, Bollywood costumer in which the economic fate of a bunch of villagers hangs on a game vs. some snooty British soldiers. Released worldwide in mid-June by Sony Entertainment TV (SET), which has recently got into theatrical distribution of Hindi movies, pic has proved one of the biggest successes of the year locally as well as carving strong niche business in the U.K. and U.S., where it’s taken a combined $1.4 million in its first month. Neither pure masala musical nor pure masala meller, “Lagaan” is an involving, easily digestible hunk of pure entertainment that could be the trigger for Bollywood’s long-awaited crossover to non-ethnic markets.
Debut production by Aamir Khan was a high-rolling gamble by the star-turned-producer: Pic is the first Bollywood picture to shoot synch-sound, entirely on location, with the cast working on just the one picture (rather than back-to-back on several), and with the longest running time for a Hindi pic since Raj Kapoor’s 1970 “My Name Is Joker.” Added to which, it’s reportedly the most expensive Bollywood musical to date, and shot for an amazing five-plus months with a mixed Indian-British cast.
Biggest surprise, given the battery of statistics, is that “Lagaan” is a long, long way from being Bollywood’s flashiest movie. Despite being lensed by ace d.p. Anil Mehta (whose dance card includes the classic, razzle-dazzle “Hum dil de chuke sanam,” 1999), the movie has a relatively low-key color palette, dominated by dusty ochre and browns, that reflects the story’s setting in a parched area of central India.
With only the traditional number of six songs throughout its 223-minute running time (a reel longer than “Ben-Hur”), the vast majority of the movie is cut and shot in a very straightforward, unkinetic way. Khan has stated he wanted to recapture the human feel of traditional Hindi pics by directors like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt, sans foreign locations and other trendy hooks.
Story is set in 1893, in the village of Champaner, riven by drought and burdened with the hated “lagaan,” a tax levied by the occupying Brits via tame rajahs in return for protecting them from rivals. When the region’s commander, Capt. Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne), forces the local rajah (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) to double the tax, the villagers protest directly to Russell who, on a nasty whim, agrees to cancel their lagaan for three years if they can beat his team at cricket. If they lose, they’ll have to pay triple lagaan.
Taking up the challenge is Bhuvan (Khan), who, despite having only the vaguest idea about the game, persuades his fellow villagers to seize the opportunity as a point of national pride. Following this simple setup, rest of pic is an almost Ealingesque comedy-drama in which the Indians have three months to learn the game prior to the grand finale.
“Lagaan” never drags, thanks almost entirely to its warm, very human feel and — in Bollywood terms — believable characters. With his arched eyebrows and spunky, diminutive stature, Khan makes Bhuvan into a likable lead rather than simply a Bollywood hunk, and his ragtag team is made up of a delightfully inept bunch.
On the romance side, which drives most of the songs, ex-soap star Gracy Singh makes a sensible impression in her first bigscreen role as Bhuvan’s love interest, who wards off the similar intentions of Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Though the love story is largely routine, it is played lighter than usual: It also results in an extraordinary three-way musical number in which Shelley sings in English of her love for Bhuvan while Khan and Singh separately mime their lyrics in Hindi.
In only his third feature, following two action dramas, helmer Ashutosh Gowariker really steps up to the plate here. The final cricket match, lasting some 75 minutes, is virtually a mini-movie of its own, beautifully paced, painstakingly shot by Mehta, and genuinely exhilarating at the end. The device of having a local explain the game to the assembled Indian audience cleverly gets round the problem of elucidating the mysteries of cricket for territories where it isn’t played.
Among the Brit cast, Blackthorne plays Russell with an enjoyably evil glee, as well as handling large chunks of Hindi dialogue. Shelley is just OK as his love-struck sister.
For the record, pic comes with a built-in intermission just when the villagers’ plight seems at its most hopeless.