‘Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India’ – a Bollywood revolution on Netflix

No country in the world has preserved the innocence and underdog joy of classic Hollywood musicals like India’s Bollywood industry.

The plot of Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (India, 2001) could be effortlessly played out in ninety minutes or less. The opening scene sets the tone: the colorful citizens of a drought stricken 19th century village gather in the parched town square to celebrate the promise of rain in a modestly outfitted but grandly choreographed production number that neatly defines the social relations solely through movement. When the rains don’t come, young peasant dreamer Bhuvan (matinee idol Aamir Khan) clashes with arrogant British Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne, sneering through the part with mustache twirling contempt), the tyrannical colonial power in the territory. The Captain dares him with an impossible challenge: a cricket match between the Russell’s haughty platoon and Bhuvan’s own fractious village, with their land tax (“lagaan”) at stake.

They’ve never played the game, let alone understand the rules, but that hardly matters as petty feuds and prejudices divide the town. But with the help of Russell’s headstrong sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), Bhuvan pulls together a unified team to take on the oppressive colonial Brits at their own game, while the pale British flower falls for the galvanizing Indian peasant Bhuvan.

Ashutosh Gowarkier writes and directs what became one of the biggest productions in Bollywood. His sweeping epic-length musical climaxes on a three day long cricket match (!) which works on a level of pure cinematic dynamics; you don’t have to understand the game to enjoy the dramatic changes in fortune. Along the way it spins romantic triangles, solidarity through teamwork, and simple melodramatic clashes of good and evil into explosions of color, song, and happy endings.

Think of this corrective to Kipling as The Longest Yard meets The Seven Samurai turned into a bloodless revolution against capricious colonial rulers with cricket bats, choreographed dance numbers, romantic triangles, and a rousing call to solidarity. Between musical numbers the film takes on racism, sexism, and the prejudice against Untouchables.

It’s longer than The Godfather Part II and no more complicated than a Disney family adventure, but what spirit, what joy, what good fun!

It was nominated for the best foreign language film Academy Award. and won eight National Film Awards in India.

In Hindi and English with English subtitles.

Rated PG

Also on DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India [DVD]

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The DVD features a bonus 17-minute sequence cut from the film which tackles yet another twist to their uphill road to victory: the nasty old Captain frames the team for a crime and tosses them in prison. Not exactly cricket, you might say.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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