It’s 1893 in the small village of Champaner, India. The villagers are feeling crushed by the lagaan (tax) they must pay on their harvest. The British Commander of their region is an arrogant racist named Andrew Russell. Russell declares that there will be a double tax this year to make up for the half amount paid last year because of the drought.
Our protagonist is a young man of the village, Bhuvan Latha, who has already come under the notice of Commander Russell when he intentionally spoiled Russell’s hunting excursion.
When the villagers come to beg for leniency, the British troops are playing cricket. Bhuvan adds insult to injury by criticizing the ‘stupid game’ the officers are playing – to him it looks like the grown men are playing the children’s game of gilli danda.
Singling out Bhuvan for his insolence, Russell challenges him to a sucker’s bet: he will completely forgive the tax if the villagers beat the Brits in a game of cricket. If they lose, however, they’ll be charged a triple tax. Of course, Bhuvan accepts the challenge, and the game is on!
The men of Champaner have three months to learn how to play cricket, form a team, and train for the game. Their livelihoods depend on it.
What Attracted Me to Lagaan?
I found out about this movie because of baseball. In 2016, after a dry spell of over a hundred years, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. That fall, I lost track of how many times I ended up explaining the rules of baseball to taxicab drivers who grew up playing cricket and were absolutely stymied by the rules of the ‘stupid game’ of baseball. Conversely, I knew nothing about cricket, so couldn’t really compare and contrast the two games.
A good friend of mine is a bonafide cricket nut. Born and raised in India, that was his game, and he still played in a city league in the park near me. So as baseball fever took over Chicago, I did my best to help him understand baseball and he tried to explain cricket to me. I still didn’t get it until a friend from England suggested I check out Lagaan. She claimed it gave a simple understanding of the game and she was right.
But Lagaan offers much more than rudimentary cricket lessons. The main story line is engaging, following the men as they try to master cricket, and inevitable subplots involving romance and treachery are woven in.
Although the story is fiction, its colonial India setting makes a strong statement against the prevalent racism. In fact, one reason for its wild success has got to be the commentary it makes on the British hold over India.
However, the social commentary is not only directed at the British. One of my favorite subplots sharply criticizes the Indian caste system.
Another strength is how the entire village comes together, singing songs about strength and righteousness, and imploring help from the gods. Although they are initially enraged with Bhuvan for putting them into this untenable predicament, as the movie progresses, so does the strength of their joint resolve and support for the team.
Finally, it’s virtually impossible not to get caught up in the highs and lows of the emotional roller coaster ride that is the climactic three-day cricket match.
Lagaan checks a lot of boxes for me. It’s a great script with great acting, and a period piece set in a brilliantly true-to-period location. I completely identified with the underdogs, Bhuvan and the villagers of Champaner, and was desperate for them to triumph. The social commentary is completely relevant twenty years later. Plus it’s Bollywood, so it’s even got great song and dance numbers!
Lagaan was an enormous success in India and worldwide, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And no matter how you feel about the ending, it is well worth the whopping 3.5 hours of running time. But you’ve got to act quickly to catch it on Netflix – a notice just posted saying it will leave that platform on February 23rd.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Cast: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne, Kulbhushan Kharbanda
Originally watched: 2016
Rewatched: January 28, 2021
Available on: Netflix
My rating: 4.5 stars
A Little Trivia:
- The British occupation of India was not instigated by the government but by the East India Company, greedy to profit from India’s wealth of spices and tea. They formed outposts, then a private militia, comprised primarily of Indian nationals. For 100 years, the corporation effectively ruled the Indian subcontinent.
- The English word “loot” is derived from the Hindi word “lut” which refers to spoils of war pillaged from an enemy.
- There was an actual Major General named Andrew Russell who served for a short time in India. While it is tempting to think the film character could be based on the historical person, their histories vary enough to assume the name alone was borrowed by the writer.