If you mix together Bollywood, Tsui Hark's fiercely anti-colonial "Once Upon a Time in China," Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and C.L.R. James's writings on cricket, you might end up with something like "Lagaan". After having opened in NYC's Film Forum last month and now available in home video, this Indian movie should not be missed by anybody who likes to see the underdog get the better of his oppressor, especially when the oppressor is a preening and sadistic British colonial officer.
"Lagaan" means tribute, as in the payment to a feudal lord of a portion of a serf's harvest. Set in 1893, "Lagaan" introduces us to villagers of Champener who are squeezed by the local Raj and the British garrison which squeezes him. When the commanding officer Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) tells the Raj (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) that the peasants will have to pay double lagaan in order to make up for the half lagaan paid the previous year, the Raj responds that would be impossible to collect since the province has been suffering from a drought and no end is in sight. A half lagaan was collected the previous year not because of generosity, but because the drought simply made it impossible to collect the full amount. The consequences would be famine. Russell tells the Raj that he must collect or else. After all, he must feed, clothe and house his troops whose main activity seems to be playing cricket rather than doing battle.
This is the same type of parasitic colonial villain who figures heavily in Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" series. Indeed, the subtitle of "Lagaan" is "Once Upon a Time in India". The main difference between the two films is the method of struggle against the colonial masters. In Tsui Hark's films, it is the well-placed fist or kick. In "Lagaan", it is the cricket bat.
When the villagers learn about the double lagaan, they organize a delegation to the Raj, led by Bhuvan, their young charismatic leader who is played to perfection by Aamir Khan, the film's producer and guiding spirit. They arrive in the middle of a cricket game, which they watch with some bemusement while waiting for an audience with the Raj. When Bhuvan is overheard commenting that the game looks "silly and stupid", the outraged British captain challenges him to a high stakes match. If the villagers win, they will not have to pay lagaan for three years. If they lose, they will have to pay triple lagaan!
If the British can be likened to the grain stealing brigands in "Seven Samurai", then the peasant will be their own saviors rather than any hired sword-toting warrior. Like the head samurai in Kurosawa's film, Bhuvan must recruit eleven men, including him, from the village to do battle with the British on the cricket field. Since none, including him, have ever played cricket before, they must be selected on the basis of skills already achieved in everyday life. For example, one peasant who has a knack for rounding up his darting hens is groomed as a catcher.
In one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in the film, Bhuvan persuades the rest of the team to accept an untouchable into their ranks. Because he is equipped with a shriveled and nearly useless hand, whose only use is putting a fierce spin on a cricket ball, he will be a perfect pitcher. How can they allow somebody from the lower caste on their team, they snort. Bhutan delivers an impassioned speech about the need to unite all Indians against their enemy and to eradicate the caste system.
Since the cricket team is composed of a member of the lower caste, a Sikh, Muslims and Hindus who get along amicably, one can conclude that Aamir Khan is conveying his own vision of a transformed India. Indeed, when no producer would come forward to make "Lagaan", Khan decided to produce it himself. The screenwriter Ashutosh Gowarikar obviously had the same kind of emancipatory vision as Khan, since he chose the name Champaner for the province in "Lagaan." Gowarikar obviously was inspired by the similarly named Champaran, the village in Bihar where Mahatma Gandhi began his agitation in 1917 to protect the rights of peasants in indigo plantations.
"Lagaan" is a long film, over four hours in two parts with an intermission. It obeys all the conventions of Bollywood, with a romantic triangle between Bhuvan, a woman from the village who loves him, and an English woman who is sympathetic to their cause. She sneaks off to the village each day to teach them the fine points of cricket, under her brother's nose, who is the sadistic commanding officer and captain of the British cricket team. It also has numerous song-and-dance performances that appear at key moments of the film. They often have a delirious quality as is typical of such films, as when the villagers serenade and dance to the darkening clouds that they hope will finally bring much needed rain.
The final hour of the film is devoted to a cricket game, whose outcome I will not reveal!
I will only state that it is consistent with the vision put forward by C.L.R. James in the preface to "Beyond a Boundary":
"This book is neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography. It poses the question What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? To answer involves ideas as well as facts. The autobiographical framework shows the ideas more or less in the sequence that they developed in relation to the events, the facts and the personalities which prompted them. If the ideas originated in the West Indies it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew."
Simply put, "Lagaan" is a film that celebrates the Calibans of India.