Since I wrote this years ago I have used “Lagaan” repeatedly in my social science class during our India unit. For my students, I edit it down to two-and-a-half hours. After some rudimentary lessons on cricket rules, they sit enraptured by the movie and stand up an cheer at the end. Not a single person believes it will be watchable, much less great, but each is won over. Yes, every still shot looks cheesy-the movie IS cheesy–but it conforms to every sports cliche and delivers like no other.
A Sports Movie That Will Have You Singing
A rag-tag bunch of ballplayers with everything at stake band together and beat the bad guys and the odds. The Longest Yard? Major League 2? The Fish That Saved Pittsburg? No, it’s Lagaan, a nominee for the 2002 Academy Awards. There are several reasons that you have not heard of it, but the major ones stand out. In short, its:
- 4 hours long
- In Hindu, mostly (with English subtitles)
- About cricket
- Has musical numbers
Yes, musical numbers. That is not to mention it’s a late 19th century period piece set in India (thus everyone speaks Hindu) and the Oscar nomination was best foreign film (it did not win). The plot is about an impoverished village accepting a challenge to play British soldiers at a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll avoid taxation for three years; if they lose, they’ll pay three times their usual steep tax. Lagaan means “land tax.”
Why is it so great? Although the first two hours combine musical numbers, romance, stock characters, and the stock training sequence raised to the next level (where the village rejects learn the game, including an untouchable!), sticking with it builds a bond with the viewer. As Capt. Russell, the arrogant commander, Paul Blackthorne is the embodiment of British imperialism. Indian heartthrob, Aamir Khan, the leader of the local “team” is the ideal hero, who molds a crazy mystic, crippled untouchable, and an unlikely assemblage into a believable and formidable team. By the match, you want blood.
It is the second two hours, all cricket, that equal any sports movie. It is all tension. We follow both sides over three days as they battle down to the last ball, and the match winds down with more twists and turns than a googly. Unlike American sports movies that string out a series of games over the season, this is a single cricket match played over three days. The mix of tragedy and triumph, backed by an amazing Indian drum soundtrack, make it difficult to sit. And this tension is sustained for over two hours!
I have never seen a cricket match, but the movie makes it easy to follow. Always surprised by the amount of personal story in favorites like Hoosiers, Chariots of Fire, and The Natural I was forgiving. With the DVD you can easily skip around in the first two hours, if you must, but do not miss a minute of the match itself. If someone has been pushing you to rent a foreign film, and you think you have the stamina, rent Lagaan. You will find yourself being the object of disbelief as you push it on others.