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PopGap #22: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

PopGap #22: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

Written by dorrk
21 December 2016

Whether with sticks and spears or bat and ball... I want to be in every battle against the British.

I'm often very hard on movies that do little more than recycle the same old tired tropes, and especially the ones that take ample time going nowhere new. So why was Lagaan, with its nearly four hours of well-trod sports & underdog cliches, so thoroughly enjoyable? Simply put, it charmed me.

If the idea of a musical epic about a faux-historic cricket match sounds dull, wait until you discover that the movie's title, Lagaan, translates to "Taxation." Yet, despite its underwhelming premises — and the relentless parade of broadly sketched characters and circumstances — Lagaan works perfectly. Ashutosh Gowariker's direction is ambitious in scale but rarely overindulgent, stars Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh are immediately lovable, Anil Mehta's cinematography is sweeping and colorful but grounded in naturalism, and A. R. Rahman's songs are infectiously staged and performed. While Lagaan stutters most with its cartoony depiction of British colonialists (Paul Blackthorne and Rachel Shelley are saddled with particularly simplistic characters, and neither actor surmounts the limitations of the screenplay), and there is never any mystery to the outcomes of any of its many plots, all of its uninspired beats are engineered with such precision, enthusiasm and sweetness, that it works rather magnificently.

PopGap #22: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

Trailer for Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

MovieLens suggested Lagaan as similar to a movie in my Top 20 on Flickchart, the 1961 musical West Side Story., directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Both movies are colorful, with lively dance numbers augmenting a tense and romantic plot. It's a good, if unorthodox, recommendation.