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'Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India'

The big game occupies almost half of the four hours of 'Lagaan'

Friday, September 06, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

Please turn off all cell phones, electronic devices and preconceptions of film time.

'Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India'

RATING: PG for historical themes, subtitles

STARRING: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne

DIRECTOR: Ashutosh Gowariker

WEB SITE: www.lagaan.com


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You are in 1893 India under the British occupation -- a small village ruled by Capt. Russell (Paul Blackthorne), an arrogant racist who equates authority with humiliation. There's a terrible drought in the land. The local rajah has come to petition for relief from "lagaan," the crop tax by which farmers must submit much of their harvest for British "protection." The captain says sure -- if the vegetarian prince will eat meat at his table.

The rajah declines. The tax is doubled.

Rebellious young Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) rallies the villagers to protest. Russell makes a cynical offer: He challenges Bhuvan and the townsmen to a cricket match, that quintessentially British game that in those days all Indians weren't familiar with. To up the stakes, he makes it triple or nothing: If the Indians win, the hated lagaan will be waived for three years; if the English prevail, it'll be three times the normal tax.

As hunky, heroic Bhuvan, Indian star Khan is an amazing physical cross between Tony Curtis in "Spartacus" and George Chakiris in "West Side Story." But yondah lies no palace of da caliph, nor well-matched Jets & Sharks. No choice for Bhuvan but to accept the wager and try to whip his Bad News Brahmins (plus an untouchable or two) into shape for the game of their lives.

I feel like the Indians when they first encountered cricket. To say it's like baseball is a desperately sick lie. Lacrosse and luging have more in common. Yes, there's a bat and a ball, and wickets. Pitching is called bowling. And the scoring formula is more mystical than the Pythagorean theorem.

Brush up not on your Shakespeare or even your Tagore for this film, but rather on your CRICKET RULES. I wouldn't harp on this but for the fact that The Big Game and its vicissitudes occupy a good half of the movie's 225-minute running time.

You heard me. But as a courtesy to the math-impaired: that's 3 hours and 45 minutes -- enough time for (A) two American films or (B) the Pirates to beat the Brewers in 11 innings.

Come to think of it, Indian films in general, and "Lagaan" in particular, are not unlike America's pastime in both the ritualistic structure and leisurely social nature of the outing. Indian audiences require quantity, with or without quality. Theirs is the largest film industry in the world, churning out 900 films a year in 20 languages, most with six or seven musical sequences. (Ten choreographers are credited for "Lagaan"!) The songs, ranging from classical Indian ragas to crossover quasi-pop-hop Broadway styles, sell millions of records. Lavish production numbers (including a nifty "Rocky"-workout here) advance the story at its snail's pace, but with frequent lapses into kitsch, notably in the twinkle-toed culture-swap fantasies of Bhuvan's lover and the captain's sister. The latter takes a shine to Bhuvan, but she's gonna need more than that red dot on her forehead to win his affection.

This is a spectacle, and as such contains that rare thing -- an intermission break and great sign announcing it, with "Gone With the Wind" aplomb!

But oooooh, do they drag out that cricket game ...

Not least of writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker's accomplishments is that "Lagaan" is the first film to be made with synchronized Hindi dialogue in 40 years. Thank God -- Krishna, Radha, all of 'em. That removes the worst artifice and obstacle to credibility: post-dubbed soundtracks (bad enough for songs) that don't seem to bother Indians but drive Westerners crazy.

"Lagaan" -- though far from the soulful high art of Satyajit Ray -- is a major artistic cut above the tedious schlock of most of those 900 annual Indian mass-entertainment entries. I'd be interested in reactions from the local Indian community, confirming or debunking such unrefined impressions, plus this final one:

My sainted Catholic mother always said the two things you couldn't pray for were money and sports. My Jewish father proved it in the breach. But that's Judeo-Christian. Evidently, it's a perfectly OK Hindu thing to do -- and quite beautifully done here in the final (very religious) musical sequence.

Which brings us and this film full cultural circle, back to baseball and our own cinematic Pirates: Elsewhere in time and space, they'd call it "Bodhisattvas in the Outfield."

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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