Sunday, May 18, 2008

[DVD] Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

Bhuvan's Eleven

Having won multiple awards and gotten itself nominated in the 2002 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, my interest in Lagaan was actually in wanting to discover more of writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker's works, having seen his latest movie Jodha Akbar, and having bought Swades: We, the People starring Shah Rukh Khan, still unwatched.

I've never been a fan of cricket and have never understood the rules, but I suppose after the time you're through with Lagaan, you'll learn at least the basics enough to enjoy the game. No doubt my interest in this sport has been piqued, and non-fans shouldn't steer away from the movie, because knowledge of the sport is not a pre-requisite for you to enjoy this wonderful gem of a sports movie running close to a whopping 3.5 hours (and I heard in the collector's edition, it runs to 4?)

Set in British India, we learn that Lagaan is a form of taxation that the villagers have to pay to their Rajas, who in turn pay the British for protection against, erm, invading forces and rivals from other Rajas. In fact, the British were double crossing everyone during their occupation of the country, and bad weather makes the lives of the villagers even more hard pressed since they have zero crops to sell. Every village needs a folk hero, and herein lies Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) who decides to step into the shoes of one, not because of bravado, but because of the atrocities dished out by the British against his fellow countrymen, especially when taxes for the year have been doubled.

So the stakes are raised in a game of cricket. Defeat the British, led by Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) and have a tax waver of 3 years for the entire province, or if they lose, then their Lagaan will be tripled. And you don't need a rocket scientist to tell you that when the impoverished have their backs against the corner, they have little choice but to fight back. However, after years of being oppressed and cowering in the face of hardship, you'll need that bright spark or two to shake things up and bring everyone to their senses that Hope is something they have which they can turn into reality if they work at it.

The storyline might seem cliche as per the usual sports movies, where our hero Bhuvan has to assemble a team of good men each with their own special farming background which can be incorporated into the game, and recruitment always is a challenge when nobody believes you, and thinks you're the troublemaker who started it all. There are leaders, and there are followers, and some good time is invested to develop this challenge, as well as to explore the plight of the villagers in more detail. The villains of the movie, those pompous Brits personified by Captain Russell with his nose perpetually in the air all the time, are put in very bad light with their looking down of the natives as slaves.

But even amongst themselves, the Indians too have their infamous caste system, and this was touched upon when Bhuvan chooses to adopt the more meritocratic route in player selection, and this message undoubtedly stands out. I can't comment much on these themes that Gowariker touch upon in his films, such as that of religious tolerance in Jodha Akbar, but it seems likely that he had incorporated these knowing that his films do appeal to the masses, and therefore serve as a reminder to everyone.

While the last 1.5 hours get devoted to the game, where two proud man go head to head against each other with their team, and team members having their own personal vendettas worked out during the matches, it never for a minute played out in a boring manner. In fact, it was entertaining to watch them go through the paces of the game in 101 terms, and from there, those unfamiliar with cricket will likely be able to pick up the basics. Even if the sport is not your cup of tea, its delivery will still appeal to you, as do the usual Bollywood staple of dance and song, as composed by renowned A.R. Rahman - I particularly liked the segment where any self-respective sports movie will have - the training montage, and with a love triangle of sorts fused between Bhuvan, his childhood sweetheart Gauri (Gracy Singh) and Englishwoman Elizabeth Russell (Rachel Shelley), sister of the villagers' enemy but one who decides to teach them the game so that they can get on equal terms with her countrymen.

Despite its cliches, Lagaan is wonderful entertainment, and you will not realize the movie's running length, as you'll be engrossed in what transpires, and will find yourself rooting for the clear underdogs as they go about trying to battle oppression in unfamiliar terms. Colourful songs and charismatic folk characters, Lagaan unquestionably reinforces my love for Bollywood!

Code 1 DVD from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment comes in anamorphic widescreen presentation, however the visuals are not pristine as they seem to be transferred from a rather noisy print with some pops and cackles. Audio is in English/Hindi Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1. Subtitles come in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Portuguese, and scene selection is spread over 52 chapters.

The extras are quite scant, with text based filmographies of director Ashutosh Gowariker, Aamir Khan, Paul Blackthorne, Gracy Singh and Rachel Shelley. The only other extra is a deleted scene which runs 17:45, which fills up the gap why it was weird when Mai seemed to be acquainted with Elizabeth, and a whole subplot of the farmers being arrested for possession of new cricket gear which were a gift from Elizabeth, the discovery of a mole and the bringing forward of the match.

Anyway if I can, I'll hunt down the beautiful limited edition box set, where only 10,000 copies have been produced. Bound to be a lot more extras in that DVD collector's edition.

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