PATRIOT MONTH #2: Lagaan, by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001)

Type of Media: Film

It’s the late 19th century. The British Raj rules India with an iron fist, charging its people massive taxes paid in grain called lagaan. Uprisings are swiftly crushed, and the native Indians soon learn that using weapons to fight back is a great way to get your town slaughtered. So some Indians get the idea to move the fight to another arena. They take something from the British, a sport called cricket, and they start practicing at it. And they get really, really good. So good that they start challenging British teams, and pretty soon they start beating them. The cricket field became a place where Indians could throw off the shackles of colonialism and oppose their oppressors. Today cricket is a core part of Indian identity, and its history has been dramatized in one of the most celebrated Bollywood films ever, Lagaan.

Lagaan revolves around the Indian village of Champaner, which cannot pay its lagaan to the British because of a long drought. Led by the roguish Bhuvan, they go to beg for a reprieve from their Raja, but he cannot help them. Bhuvan sees the British officers playing cricket and remarks that it looks like a children’s game. The sadistic lead officer, Captain Russell, takes offense and challenges Bhuvan to a cricket match. If Bhuvan’s team wins, the entire province will be exempt from taxes for three years, but if Russell’s team wins the province will have to pay triple their normal tax.

The team Bhuvan assembles is a motley crew of farmers, artisans, and misfits. He even recruits a dalit, an untouchable member of the lowest caste in Indian society, who has a crippled right arm that lets him bowl balls with unpredictable spin. At first half the team refuses to play with the dalit, but Bhuvan makes an impassioned speech about the injustice of the caste system and the need to unite against the British that changes their minds. Being on the right side of history over fifty years before the caste system was constitutionally abolished in India, Bhuvan is a clear and unambiguous hero.

If that above example hadn't tipped you off, Lagaan isn’t interested in showing shades of gray. The Indian villagers lead simple, righteous lives and the villainous British military commanders go on about white racial superiority. Bhuvan doesn’t go through much of a character arc himself, as he both starts and ends the film as a strong, smart, wise man, and his only ‘flaw’ is that nobody recognizes his heroism. There’s a love triangle between Bhuvan, Elizabeth, and a woman from the village named Gauri that resolves cleaner than possibly any other love triangle in film history, with Bhuvan choosing Gauri and Elizabeth just sadly accepting his choice and never marrying for the rest of her life.

But don't let that convince you to skip Lagaan. The lack of character complexity is just a small scratch on an otherwise glorious film. Lagaan is epic in scale, with scenes that regularly involve dozens of extras and gorgeous backdrops of dry landscapes and ancient forts. The half-dozen musical numbers (this is a Bollywood movie, so music breaks are mandatory) are catchy spectacles of leaping dancers and swirling red and orange saris, with Elizabeth’s song as the only down point. And while the characters aren’t complex, they’re still well-drawn enough that you remember their names, their lives, and their struggles. Which is good, because to fit all of its drama and dancing Lagaan is three-and-a-half hours long. 

If that run time puts you off, it’s your loss. For anyone interested in Bollywood, for anyone interested in Indian history, and hell, for anyone who loves Disney movies, Lagaan is a fantastic watch. Just be sure to take a few minutes to brush up on your cricket knowledge before you put it on.