Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker || Produced by: Aamir Khan, Mansoor Khan
Screenplay by: Ashutosh Gowariker, Abbas Tyrewala, Sanjay Daima || Starring: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne, Rajesh Vivek
Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography: Anil Mehta || Editing by: Ballu Saluja || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 214 minutes
The uber-patriotic, Hindi sports-melodrama of mammoth proportions, 2001’s Lagaan is an exciting celebration of both film excess and India’s national obsession with cricket. It is also one of the few notable sports dramas produced by Bollywood, a genre that has become a cliched staple in American cinema. You don’t need to fully understand cricket to appreciate Lagaan, but you do need to be able to tolerate sports dramas in general in order to sit through over three and a half hours of an underdog sports story.
As far as underdog athletic dramas go, Lagaan is a pretty darned good one. It executes all the classic attributes of your typical sports movie, namely having a beaten down, humbled cast of heroes lead by a charismatic main character (Aamir Khan) compete against an arrogant, superior establishment force; the aforementioned underdog team trains hard with the help of an experienced teacher (Rachel Shelley) and former professional athletes; a long, drawn out match ensues, culminating with the underdogs coming from behind to win at the last second. Formula, baby; it exists for a reason.
The Bollywood elements come into play with the mammoth run-time, the obligatory musical numbers, and the love triangle between Khan and female leads Gracy Singh and Rachel Shelley. Writer-director-producer Ashutosh Gowariker embraces the stereotypical elements of classic sports cinema, then magnifies and “Hindifies” them to Bollywood proportions. For the most part, this strategy works because the characters are well written, interesting, and likable, and it’s satisfying to watch those opposing, brash, arrogant Brits eat their words when the Indian heroes inevitably beat them.
The thing I was most worried about coming into this film was how Gowariker would portray the underdog winners against their British opposition. What I didn’t want was an Avatar (2009)-level of simplistic writing that resorted to lazy, cheap, nativist tactics to get us to hate the villains. Thankfully, nowhere in this film is a comical stereotype or hamfisted villain used to manipulate audience opinion. Paul Blackthorne’s Captain Andrew Russell may be an arrogant asshole, but he’s not a laughable, one-dimensional caricature. That’s not to say that patriotism isn’t at a record high in Lagaan, because it certainly is, but none of the major characters or story elements suffer because of a jingoistic, self-righteous attitude. With that said, you will laugh at the the sheer number of times somebody yells, “Those damned whites!” over and over again. It’s all in good fun and rather tongue-in-cheek.
What is much more irritating are some of the film’s pathetic running attempts at comic relief, most of which are personified in Rajesh Vivek’s fortune teller-character. I detested every scene that focused on his supposedly “hilarious” jokes and caveman mannerisms. He’s like Zack Lee from The Night Comes for Us (2018) or Kichijiro from Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), a shaggy, disheveled cartoon character that wandered into a film way too smart for him.
Thankfully, the star of the show, Aamir Khan, commands the narrative like a pro, and uses his charisma to his advantage whenever he can. He is a great everyman leader of the ragtag group of underdogs, and it’s no chore to root for him. His evolution from a publicly ridiculed and headstrong villager to provincial hero is great fun.
One thing I found underwhelming was the love triangle between Khan, Shelley, and Singh. Throughout the movie, the story teases us with the prospect of a juicy, volatile competition between Singh and Shelley for Khan’s affections, but an outright confrontation never occurs. Khan simply chooses Singh over Shelley, and that is the end of things. The anticlimactic nature of Lagaan’s romantic subplot is decidedly non-Bollywood, which I found disappointing. The melodramatic potential of that subplot goes to waste, and given the film’s leviathan length, that lack of romantic execution is a shame.
Other aspects I found lacking were the film’s visuals and musical score. I am a huge A. R. Rahman fan, but this score is flavorless and standard-issue. Furthermore, the entire film sports a weird, monocolored palette of yellow, yellow, and more yellow. Everything in this movie is yellow. Color-correction and digital editing are common in mainstream cinema (take The Matrix’s  prevalent use of the color green, for instance), but that is mainly because filmmakers are lazy and like giving their picture a distinct visual flavor even when a story doesn’t require it. Lagaan is a visually boring experience because of its monocolored features.
Lagaan’s pacing is solid for its considerable running time, and the multi-day cricket match plays a part in that effective rhythm. The match allows opportunity to rest in between plays, while the sports-cinematography itself is exciting, fast-paced, and tense.
All things considered, Lagaan is an epic winner of a sports drama, and manages to pat its nationalist pride without going too overboard. As an American, I can appreciate and understand national pride in film, but I also recognize the need for tasteful approaches to touchy subject matter and intelligent screenwriting. Lagaan walks a tricky tightrope in stretching an underdog story mixed with historical intrigue over 214 minutes, but as far as sports dramas go, Lagaan is a finely tuned one. It’s too bad the film’s visual flair and forgettable soundtrack hinder its presentation, yet Lagaan overcomes these and other shortcomings by sticking to the basics of strong characterizations, exciting sports-cinematography, and utilizing its charismatic lead to full effect.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Aamir Khan can act the underdog hero, and he knows it. Lagaan is lead by his charismatic performance, Anil Mehta’s athletic camerawork, and the tense rivalry between the Indian villagers and the British colonials. Blackthorne’s Russell is a fun bad guy. The film remains engaging even at three and a half hours long.
— However… visually speaking, Lagaan is dull. The score by Rahman is bland, forgettable, and the biggest single disappointment of the film. Vivek’s character should’ve been cut entirely. Much of the film’s running comic relief misfires when it’s not coming from Aamir. The false love-triangle is a dud.
? Those damned whites! What a great line… can anyone confirm that’s what the actors were saying? I don’t trust the exact translations of my subtitles…
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