I loved it. The end.
Ok, fine that’s not the end.
Lagaan was everything I expected it to be both from what I had heard from fans, and from what I knew about the scope of Ashutosh Gowariker films (my first Bollywood movie was Jodhaa Akbar). Lagaan manages to be grand and intimate, universal and local. It’s about the British Raj, but it’s also really about this village and this cricket match. They are the microcosm for the history of colonialism in India.
There’s not a whole lot I can say that hasn’t already been said repeatedly and eloquently. It’s a good film! It looks good, it sounds good, the actors are exceptional, the story is timeless (empire, poverty, and sports??), and nuance isn’t completely tossed out the window. I’ll take a few points that stuck out to me as a viewer.
White folks (who speak Hindi)
I always get a kick out of seeing foreigners in Bollywood films, if for no other reason than it provides a much needed opportunity to see yourself through the eyes of a different culture. Usually, these characters are hilariously overdrawn and the performances could only be called acting in the loosest definition of the term. People are picked off the street because they look right for the part and you get a woman who clearly does not know English playing the American one-night-stand girl or something like that.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not because a) I didn’t come here to see white folks and b) y’all don’t owe us a thing. Still, in a movie that wants to be taken seriously and has the Raj at its center, you’re going to need actually convincing performances from actually English actors. Lagaan very nearly pulls this off with the casting of Paul Blackthorne (bit cartoonish) and does pull it off with Rachel Shelley. It’s great that they showed Raj officials speaking at least some of the local language, because that is accurate to the history. I would like to know more about Blackthorne’s Hindi preparation, because he was clearly coached through. As for Rachel Shelley’s Elizabeth, I found it impossible to believe that she went from not knowing one word of Hindi and struggling hideously with the name Bhuvan to being able to differentiate between the past tense, the perfective tense, future tense, and even compulsion (not to mention her exceptional vocabulary). How long was she supposed to be in Champaner again??
Caste and religion
Does a movie like Lagaan get made in 2019? Although you could argue it’s a bit shoe-horned in, Lagaan makes an effort to present a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, casteless society. Everyone prays for rain, everyone has a hand in the team’s victory, everyone is part of the community, part of India, at least in the end. I just don’t know if that would be as appreciated now, or if it would called pandering to the PC army. Anyway, it’s a nice element to the film. If anything, there could have been more.
The soundtrack to the film is gorgeous. I especially loved “O Paalanhaare.” That song captures so much magic in its subject, its melody, and in its performance by the legendary Lata Mangeshkar. Beautiful. People like to mock Bollywood songs becoming devotional ones, but for me this makes the case that the best devotional music may be coming out of Bollywood anyway.
Other songs like “Chale Chalo” and “Ghanan” have become part of the national songbook of India. I heard (and may have tried to dance to) “Chale Chalo” at the Wagah Border Crossing. It’s exuberant and fun and just iconic.
I came for the historical setting and cultural importance, but I stayed for the sweetness, inspiration, and, of course, music. I’m about twenty years late, but there’s no wrong time to watch Lagaan.