I’ve been told that Lagaan is the best Bollywood film ever made, the one film from Bollywood to see if you only see one, so imagine my surprise when I discovered just how Western the plot is. Lagaan is a sports movie, and shares a great deal in common with films like “Hoosiers,” “Bad News Bears,” even “Dodgeball,” and “A League of Their Own.” In fact, some time ago I watched a film about baseball and Japanese internment camps called “American Pastime,” and somebody should be suing somebody for plagiarism.
The people in a small Indian village suffer after years of drought and oppressive taxes demanded by the nearby British fort. They approach the captain at the fort and beg for mercy – and he challenges them to a cricket game — they win, no tax. They lose, triple tax. “Lagaan” is the word for tax, hence the title.
“Lagaan” is three and half hours long, which is at least an hour longer than it needs to be. It’s a full-fledged, singing/dancing musical, the kind of thing we haven’t seen in the States the 50’s. (The last decade of singing/dancing musicals have been ironic riffs on those old classics; “Lagaan,” on the other hand, is as innocent of irony as a newborn chid.) It is lavishly produced and beautifully shot, sufficiently acted and, though long, pretty evenly paced. Knowledge of the game of cricket will certainly help, as the last hour focuses on the Big Match, but isn’t necessary. I know next to nothing about it and I could pretty much figure out what was going on.
Some tangential thoughts occurred to me as the movie went by (it doesn’t take your full attention; once you recognize the formula, it’s pretty easy to know how it’s going to proceed, as well as end.) First, outside of Movie Land, the Brits would be absolute fools to make a wager like this. The first rule in the Oppressor’s Handbook is don’t let them unify. The game unifies the Indians. The second rule in the Oppressor’s handbook is don’t give them any hope. The game gives them hope. The third rule is don’t back them into a corner where there only choices are fight or die. The triple tax backs them into this kind of corner. Even if they had won, they would’ve had a revolution on their hands. Triple Lagaan? How about a slit throat and a looted palace instead?
And then I got to think about the fairy tale of playing a game to decide if you get to eat that year or not, and then I thought about all of the professional athletes for whom it isn’t a fairy tale. A large number of NBA and MLB (and probably NFL, I don’t know) players come from very poor neighborhoods, either here in the USA or in Latin America. Their salaries, which we whine about because they seem so extravagant, often feed and support whole communities. Not unlike the Indians in “Lagaan.”