2001 / produced by Aamir Khan / directed by Ashutosh Gowariker / starring Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, & Rachel Shelley / music by A.R. Rahman / lyrics by Javed Akhtar

    Ahem. ‘Lagaan.’ The first Bollywood movie to crack the racks at Blockbuster (the US-based movie-rental chain). The third Indian movie ever to be nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. The movie that, at least briefly and in some circles, earned its producer and star the nickname ‘God.’

   ‘Lagaan’ didn’t win the Oscar. But why not? It had a story the Academy loves to love. A four-hour period piece – about a cricket game, of all things – that had scrapped its way out of the cheesy hurly-burly of Bollywood. A star/producer with ‘Napoleonic’ ambitions who played the Oscar game and won, hosting screenings for Academy members in a West Hollywood hotel room until the buzz built. And, finally, Oscar-esque themes of oppression and redemption, with a handsome man leading the charge.

   That’s right, there are deeper themes at work in ‘Lagaan’ than a cricket match, which help save the movie from being what what one cranky American reviewer called an Indian version of the baseball film ‘Major League.’

   The story: A small town in India suffers not only from a drought but the whims of British control. The town is asked to pay double tax, and when a young man of the town protests he is given a challenge – if his town can win a cricket match against the British, there will be no tax to pay. But if the town loses, it will have to pay triple the tax. The man, Aamir Khan at his most muted, accepts without even knowing how cricket is played.

   However. The classic Bollywood love triangle comes with the soft-hearted, parasol-toting sister of the mean British leader. Attracted to Khan, she rapidly picks up Hindi and begins to teach a rag-tag bunch of town men the game. Meanwhile, Khan’s town sweetheart is jealous. But Khan is a decent (and athletic) man. Here is an ending that can be seen from even the farthest seats in the bleachers.

   But this should not stop you from watching ‘Lagaan,’ which is still one of the best films Bollywood has made. That is thanks to Khan, who must be the industry’s most finicky and yet rule-bending member. The gossip magazines yawn and call him an analyzing bore. Maybe he is. But for ‘Lagaan,’ he made the actors promise to shoot no other films while ‘Lagaan’ was being made, an unusual move when most run between several sets. And ‘Lagaan’ was shot in sync sound – no later dubbing of the actors’ voices. Wonky details, perhaps, but it means that the movie comes out relatively seamless and professional. Not a bad standard to set in Bollywood.

   Despite its easy plot, ‘Lagaan’ looks good and sounds good, with wonderful, understated music that makes great background music for reading or studying – another rare thing in Bollywood. The only real ‘boink’ moment is a song that shows the British girl twirling in her bedroom and singing ‘I am in love’ in English, an uncomfortably Disney-like scene where you expect glittering sparrows to wrap her in a sari. Squirm in your seat a bit, and then it’s over.

   No matter what Khan may say, ‘Lagaan’ was a ‘Dear Oscar nominating committee’ movie from the start. The colors, the music, the melodrama, everything that is Bollywood has been toned down just enough to not scare off the first-time viewer. This reviewer suspects that Khan even thinned his rug-like chest hair to appeal to Western eyes. All of these efforts clearly worked to make a good film – but as the Oscars and a little part of my heart marked ‘Passion’ go, they didn’t work quite well enough.

- reviewed by Kaya

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Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) bares it all



Aamir and the gang



Aamir and Gracy Singh

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