From the thunderclap in the first torrential rainstorm — a cue for riotous dancing — to the climactic sunlight on the smiling faces of millions of viewers, this Bollywood epic is cause for joy of meteorological proportions. Surely the longest and most enthralling underdog-sports movie ever, Lagaan stars Aamir Khan (who also produced the film) as the leader of 19th century peasants from the western Indian town of Champaner, who strike a desperate deal with the representatives of the English Raj: if the locals defeat the lords of the British Empire in a cricket match, they get a break on their lagaan, or land tax. One guess as to whether the Champaners become champs.
The most recent of only three musical dramas in India’s glorious film history to be nominated for an Academy Award (after the 1957 Mother India and the 1988 Salaam Bombay!), and one of the few to achieve U.S. release outside of the Desi theater circuit, Lagaan has the capability to win over Bollywood newcomers — to turn snickers into smiles, indulgence to rapture. Writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker finds the spice in a masala mix of melodrama and character comedy, and keeps his cinematic rhythms humid and urgent for the full 3¾-hour running time. Even those who know none of cricket’s complicated rules will bounce in their seats to A.R. Rahman’s irrepressible tunes; here, one can immediately and fully accept the Bollywood trope of music and dance as an expression of life’s deepest, most soaring emotions. As sports film, social document or communal ecstasy, Lagaan is the all-time all-rounder.
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