Indian villagers take on British colonial troops in a high stakes game of cricket, the outcome of which will determine whether their village taxes (lagaan) will be raised to crushing levels or eliminated altogether. [ Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India credits: Dir: Ashutosh Gowariker/ Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley/ 224min/ Musical/ Anti-Taxation/ Indian/ Hindi with English subtitles]
The premise here is a bit far-fetched, but the telling is more than entertaining enough to make a little suspended judgment worthwhile. The year is 1893; the place, a rural town in British colonial India. It seems the annual “lagaan” (agricultural tax) on local villagers was cancelled in the previous year due to an extended drought that made paying it impossible. Though the drought continues, the sadistic British captain in charge of the province orders the lagaan not only reinstated but doubled.
The desperate villagers appeal this decision, so the captain makes them a Machiavellian offer: the village will play a game of cricket against the occupying British troops; if the villagers win, the tax will be cancelled for three years; if they lose, the tax will be reinstated and tripled.
What follows is a cross between Ghandi and The Bad News Bears, as the villagers assemble an untrained cricket team from their own rag tag ranks to face the relentlessly professional Brits, knowing all the while that if they lose they face certain destitution. Leading the villagers is Bhuvan, a sensitive man of the 1890s (played by Indian heartthrob Aamir Khan–by looks, India’s answer to Tony Curtis). Most of the story is about how Bhuvan recruits viable cricket players, learns the game of cricket, trains his team, and above all overcomes the villagers’ sense of hopelessness–all leading to the film’s climactic end.
Libertarians will obviously appreciate this film for its anti-tax and anti-imperialism themes, and it also has a social tolerance element that should appeal, as the Indian cricket players must overcome their historic ethnic animosities in order to win. It would have been easy for a film like this to have turned into pointless Brit bashing, but, the evil captain aside, the British themselves are portrayed for the most part as a decent lot with a strong sense of fair play. No ill will here, this is an upbeat musical?!
Yes, at critical junctures in the story everyone breaks into song and dance in the typical Bollywood style. Somehow it works. Good thing, since this is the most expensive cinematic production in Indian history. The main downside is that it’s long, at nearly four hours. But don’t let that stop you from seeing this film; the time is well spent. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India won numerous awards worldwide and was nominated for the “Best Foreign Film” Academy Award.