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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

CRUMBIES… 5 crumblies

Vibrant Vinay picked a mid-winter night, cold and windy, to get us all huddled around the widescreen in the TV room. The ladies were there, promised a youthful Aamir Khan in clothes of yesteryear (they were just off a Poldark marathon and in full-on creepy-leches mode). The men were there, promised a bit of sport. Old Jack was there to follow-up on the culture shock of Ghajini and see what the boy Khan achieved back in the day. I’ll be honest, having translated the title (Taxation!), seen the running time (three hours), noted the sport in question (cricket…………………sigh), and realised this was an historical drama with a whiff of Empire, well, hopes were low. The room heated up as the drama played out – I was wrong – Lagaan is terrific fun. And Aamir Khan gives good hero – man and cricketer – making the three hours fly by.

It didn’t take long for us to drop the TV room etiquette. You normally have to keep the noise down in case someone swallows their tongue. Gargly Grace left us that way. It was sad, but Basil Fawlty was beating up his car and we laughed long and loud while she died. Anyhow: Lagaan made us laugh, cheer, boo, hiss, hang silently off our zimmers, hate the invaders, shout for the invaded, and learn some taxation history from the sub-continent. I was knackered by midnight, but thoroughly cheered.

Okay – it’s 1893, so British Raj ahoy. The goodly folk of Champaner have had a rubbish couple of years, weather and harvest wise, and cannot meet their tax obligations to the invaders (the British – pfft – we were already jeering) and eat. And it’s hot out there. An early wind up scene, a musical number of hope and bloody-hell-they’re-dancing, shows clouds gathering, wandering over and away – taking rain and fairness with them. Things are rough.

Out hunting, picking on innocent wildlife, the British commander (the jaw-droppingly caricatured Paul Blackthorne as Captain Russell) is tricked out of killing by Bhuvan, the boy Khan from Champaner. Instant enemies, they meet again when Bhuvan leads some villagers to beg tax relief from their Raja, Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda giving good compromised monarch). Russell being the British tosser that he is, refuses. Then, in moments of glorious close-up, in which all parties resist smirking, their smouldering looks define the rest of the film. For Bhuvan has been taking the piss out of British toff-schoolboy-soldiers and their game of cricket. It’s a kids game in India…but, says Russell, if they win against against the Brits, they’ll get three years tax-free. Lose, and they will pay three times the amount. Duh-duh-duuuuuuuuuuuhhhhh!

Okay, here’s the inter-generational moment. The wise old owls of the village want to bite the bullet and pay. And they are mightily pissed at Bhuvan – the young firebrand – for dragging them into a moment of life-threatening risk. But, as everyone in the TV room agreed, you’ve got to let go sometime. And if the dancing is this good, what the hey?

Now, this being a drama-comedy-romance-historical in the tradition of Bollywood epics, Bhuvan has his interpersonals in a mess. He is powerfully fancied by Gauri (Gracy Singh breaking the hearts of the older gentlemen in the room). They’re clumsy with one another, but things are on track, if you see what I mean. Then, Captain Russell’s sister goes and falls for Bhuvan. This does two things: it drives the plot along nicely, because she helps the villagers learn how to play cricket. It also snapped Tense Tim’s toes with embarrassment. In a deeply silly set of scenes, the poshly-posh Rachel Shelley as Elizabeth Russell learns Hindi in four days (really), then lets the unwitting Bhuvan boogie in her brain whilst he actually assembles his team and fends off shouty prejudice from villagers (one self-servingly prone to ratting him out to Captain Russell). As Bhuvan lands a decent enough set of tossers and batters, Shelley retires to the British stronghold to flounce around her bedroom, waft through curtain-veil things, singing “I’m in love” at a pitch so uncomfortable it took out Tim’s feet.


Okay, the pieces come together. Captain Russell gets a bollocking from his masters over this impending match. Jeremy Child gives quality posho-in-the-sun as Russell is warned he’ll be paying the tax should the Brits lose.

And then – in the final hour – the match begins. The whole village turns up, circling the pitch. The Brits, far fewer in number, twirl their moustaches and whisper unsporting things from the pavilion steps. And – here’s old Jack’s cricket ignorance showing – they even cheat. A bit. Probably.

The TV room when very very quiet during the game. And against my better nature, cricket became interesting. Intensely interesting. The village’s character actors – from funny, to angry, to powerful, to crippled – hold you on the Indian side. The Brits – stuck-up, sneery, mean-spirited and nasty-smug – repel you. The balance of the game swings to and fro, holding you like every good sports movie should…

You’ll have to watch it to find out what happens.

Cos it is neither plain sailing nor everything you expect. The game is full of surprises and – for Aamir Khan’s square-jawed and sturdy Bhuvan – tip-top hero moments. He leads a lovely cast through match play, dances and impassioned speeches.

Did we sob or cheer at the end? Did right happen? Do the villagers overcome issues of caste and health to let their best bowler play? Most importantly, does Gauri get her man…? Watch the bloody film. I loved it. The mix of drama, melodrama, light romantic comedy, great songs, big dance numbers, coherent cricket and watching with a happy crowd made it a perfect panacea to a cold winter’s night. Indian cinema is so much braver than European at treating films as evening pleasures, big, broad and dangerously vaudevillian, but not scared to grind story tension in the stars’ faces. Lagaan does all this with grace to spare.

Best bit? Rajesh Vivek as Guran. The bat, the stance, the rage… I chuckled for days.

So, yes, it’s a cracking sports movie for the young at heart. Watch a young man challenge his elders, his elders put up with it, and Aamir Khan earn himself the hero’s career. But the second you see Rachel Shelley start to sing, run, zimmer or crawl to the cafetière. You’ll need caffeine.

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