The only bad thing about Lagaan is how much better it is than other Bollywood films. If you're aching to see more movies like it, tough. There are some outstanding serious films from the Indian subcontinent, it's true, but this is is a singing, dancing blockbuster that's aimed at putting bums on seats. It's just that it also happened to be a big international hit and only the third Hindi-language film ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (The other two were Mother India and Salaam Bombay.)
The scary bit is that it's a four-hour movie about cricket. That will have deterred viewers, even if it's not quite true since 224 minutes is slightly less than 240. Of the two parts of that statement, its length turns out to be no problem at all, since the film's so lively and entertaining that the time flies past. I can even attest that it stands up well to being broken up and watched over two days.
What's a bit more challenging is the cricket. Even leaving aside the game's reputation for being dull and interminable, its problem is its complexity. It's not intuitive. You can't pick it up in five minutes as you can with soccer, for instance, which even a toddler could understand at a glance. Men chase ball. Kick ball into net. Hurrah! Cricket on the other hand will probably look boring if you don't know the rules. (Some people would say that it looks boring even if you do.) If you're going to a cricket match for the first time, it's likely to look like nothing more than people standing around all day in a field unless you've been told beforehand about leg-before-wicket, no-balls and all the rest. Nevertheless this complexity is what creates cricket's drama. You've got all the battles within the game. The duel between batsman and bowler. The struggle to reach a century. The dramatic collapses and last-wicket stands. The more you understand, the richer it becomes, until it soon becomes clear that the five-day Test is the highest form of the game, whereas it's painful even to contemplate anything like that with football. In that game, ninety minutes is about right. You'd be chewing your leg off after the first four or five hours.
Translate that to movies and you'll see that cricket can make for a unique kind of sports film. Obviously this genre always has to end with a big game, but ironically the specific rules tend to be almost irrelevant. The hero runs, tries his little heart out, weeps, fights and eventually triumphs. Well done, old chap! What was he playing? Football? Basketball? Poker? Doesn't matter, really. Here though, there's a whole world of dramatic options available to the filmmakers in the climactic match and I think they chose almost all of them. You've got homicidal bouncers, crippled tailenders, freak run-outs and of course a desperate final dash for too many runs off not enough balls. The cricket match alone would have been half the running time of another film, yet it feels short and could easily have been longer. At times it's breathless. It's heartbreaking to see that boy get run out backing up too far when he hadn't understood the dangers, for instance. Emotions are running high.
Obviously, India as a nation is cricket-mad. People like Tendulkar are bigger stars than any of this movie's actors could dream of becoming. However the twist here is that it's set in the 19th century, when almost no one in the subcontinent had even heard of cricket and so our heroes have to learn the game from scratch. This is a big help to the newbie, not to mention a source of low comedy. Clearly the film's international success even in non-cricket-playing countries shows that they've successfully made a film that anyone can watch and love, but I think it's inevitable that you'll get more from it if you're not still trying to decipher the umpire's signals. It's clearly playing modern cricket, to the extent that they've goofed by having six-ball overs instead of the historically correct four or five, and there are a few sly touches in there. There's an equivalent of Muralitharan, complete with deformed arm and on-field discussion about the legality of his action. There's also the first mankad (i.e. that backing-up incident I referred to), while an Indian invents the scoop over the keeper.
The plot's straightforward enough. It's 1893 and the British Empire are collecting the taxes (aka. "lagaan"), regardless of the fact that there's been a drought and the villagers are in dire straits. Our hero Bhuvan gets into a fight with a British officer and ends up making a bet. If a team of Indian villagers can beat the soldiers in a cricket match, then no one in the entire province will have to pay any taxes for three years. However if they lose, they'll have to pay triple. Bhuvan agrees on behalf of the other villagers without consulting them, then afterwards talks them into going along with it on the grounds that they can't pay even regular lagaan, so it's a no-lose situation! Uh, dude? Not the best logic there. Nevertheless the game is now on.
The cast are all great. The Indians are a colourful and eccentric bunch, from the heroic Bhuvan to my favourite hairy loony. They're playing their situation for real, but that doesn't mean they're not still fun to watch. As for the bad guys, one thing I appreciated was that no one's implying that the British are inherently evil. Certainly the villainous Captain Russell is a nasty piece of work and we're looking forward to seeing him get his comeuppance, but it's particularly entertaining to see his superiors' reaction to finding out about the bet. They disapprove, of course, but you know immediately that it might as well now have been written in blood. These commanding officers are going to be at the match, watching every ball, and if the Indians win, they'll duly get what was promised. Meanwhile Russell's sister takes an shine to Bhuvan and goes out to coach the villagers. A particularly goofy plot point here is that in order to do this, she learns to speak Hindi in a couple of afternoon's lessons. Whoah. Smart girl. If she'd just kept that up, then in a couple of weeks she could have mastered Latin, Greek, Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese!
It has musical numbers, but they're good. They're also woven into the story and the characters, rather than merely being interludes. Another unusual thing about it, incidentally, is that it's apparently the first Bollywood film in thirty years to have been shot with synchronised sound instead of dubbing it all later with ADR in the studio.
I've talked a lot about the cricket and not much about the story, but to be honest that's because with the latter I can hardly think of anything to criticise. It's all lovely. You've got underdog heroes, a despicable villain and terrifying stakes. You've got a few laughs and a bit of romance. You've got a four-hour film positively tearing through its running time and never flagging for a second. It's also got an egalitarian message, in which people of different colours, races and castes are forced to band together in the cause of cricket. On the field, everyone's equal. This is after all a game in which anyone can be a hero and you don't need a certain kind of physique, as you do with rugby or basketball. If you need a runner, even a child can be allowed to participate. Lagaan was a hugely successful film and it deserved every bit of it.