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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

The United States may dominate international film markets with an endless stream of high-profile titles that earn millions of dollars in foreign venues, but India's film industry is the world's largest. The country produces around 1,000 pictures per year; 15 million people see movies on any given day; more than 900 million will buy movie tickets in the space of two months — a number just shy of the country's total population. A nation of growing wealth, but also deeply entrenched poverty in many regions, Indians have turned to the cinema over the past several decades for escapist entertainment, creating an abundance of "Bollywood" films that often feature romantic leads, and almost always include plenty of singing and dancing. But despite their popularity, movies may be the second most vital form of Indian recreation — the sport of cricket borders on national obsession. Imported by the British during their colonial reign, Indians took up the game in earnest in the early 20th century, and its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it's an inexpensive team sport (a ball, a bat, three sticks, and flat ground are all one needs), in addition to its similarity to the old Indian game of gilli danda, another ball-and-bat contest. Professional cricket teams play in India's largest stadiums, while impoverished children can bowl and bat on a dry dirt field. It's a sport that has no cultural boundaries in a nation that often has been divided by them. It should come as no surprise then that Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) has become one of the most popular films in Indian history, with its epic tale of an 1893 cricket match between agrarian villagers and occupying British forces. What's startling is how accessible the film is by Western standards, making it a rare Bollywood picture to get a DVD release from a major American studio. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, Lagaan concerns the farming village of Champaner, which has suffered from two years of drought and borders on starvation. After the head of the local British cantonment, Capt. Russell (Paul Blackthorne), impulsively doubles the "lagaan" — or land tax, paid with crops — the villagers appeal to their Rajah, Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who insists that he has no influence over the British. It is only after a confrontation between Capt. Russell and young, hotheaded villager Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), that the sporting officer delivers a wager — if the villagers can defeat the British in a game of cricket, he will forgive the lagaan for three years. But if they lose, they must pay triple lagaan. Against the advice of the villagers, Bhuvan accepts, and is thus forced to recruit a team to learn the strange sport. Assistance comes from Capt. Russell's sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who is offended by her brother's behavior. But her immediate attraction to Bhuvan makes villager Gauri (Gracy Singh) uneasy, as she has been hoping to marry him. Elizabeth conceals her support, but in the meantime the stakes are raised even further — Capt. Russell is told by his superiors that if he loses the match he will be shipped directly to central Africa.

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Without question, Lagaan is a Bollywood film, but it successfully emerges from the confines of its genre thanks to an overall commitment to quality storytelling. With Bollywood pictures made at a rapid pace (major stars will appear in as many as six movies per year, and often shoot them concurrently), the six-month production shoot raised eyebrows in the Indian film industry, in addition to the fact that an entire village was constructed for the project, and the actors took up residence there. Leading man Aamir Khan — one of India's A-list film stars — has a reputation for carefully choosing his roles , and after approving the script for Lagaan he signed on as the film's producer. The Indian press may have chattered over the shooting schedule and enormous budget (reportedly the largest for any Bollywood film to date), but Khan and writer/director Gowariker succeed with their emphasis on the script and solid performances. Yes, Lagaan has musical numbers (what mainstream Indian film doesn't?), but they do not appear as rapidly as in common Bollywood fare, and generally serve to flesh out the plot. They are also lively and very charming. But where Lagaan will have its greatest appeal with Western viewers is in its universal story, with a rag-tag crew of villagers (each having unique skills and character traits) who hope to achieve an unthinkable victory against ruthless oppressors. There is a cold-blooded villain, a love triangle, and a final cricket match that lasts as long as some films in its own right but never fails to engross (which means viewers will understand all sorts of things about cricket by the time the movie ends). And while Paul Blackthorne as Capt. Russell is a magnificent, mustache-twirling bastard and both Rachel Shelley and Gracy Singh are gorgeous leading ladies, Lagaan ultimately is a star project for Aamir Khan, a boyishly handsome actor with charisma that easily rivals any American leading man. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source print that is colorful, but nonetheless is not free from some collateral wear. However, the audio is delivered in a rich Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and there is an array of subtitles. With a running time of nearly four hours, the disc is not bursting with extras, although an additional 18 minutes of deleted scenes illustrate an abandoned plot arc. All told, the feature probably is best enjoyed by DVD fans as a two-part miniseries with a break at the intermission. Keep-case.

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