Given how many films I’ve watched, rated, and reviewed over the course of my life I think that it is not too much of a stretch to call myself a cinephile. Much too pretentious certainly but not too much of a stretch. I’m a fan of films that range from the golden age of the Hollywood studio system to underground Korean revenge epics. But one glaring hole in my knowledge base has always been Bollywood. The closest I’d gotten to an Indian produced film was Slumdog Millionaire which when I read it out loud sounds a bit racist. It’s not that I had an aversion to Bollywood films I just never had anyone push me to watch them and I lacked an entry point. Which is why I decided that for this week’s edition of Subtitle Subversive I would force myself to sit down and finally watch a Bollywood film. And so I selected one I’d seen on a great many top lists but knew almost nothing about, the 2001 film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.
This film is amazing. It’s nearly four hours long, but it’s a ridiculously fun four hours. The story follows a group of desperate, downtrodden villagers in 1893 India, which you’ll note is during the time of the British Raj. With no rains to water their crops the villagers face the grim possibility that they will be able to pay Lagaan, a hefty tax, to their British overlords. When a capricious captain decides to double the tax the villagers petition for mercy. The captain proposes a wager: If the villagers can beat him and his men in a game of cricket then there will be no tax; if they can’t then the entire province will pay triple tax. That’s right this is a four hour movie about cricket. Which is still two and a half days less than it takes to play a game of cricket. What follows is a film that more or less follows the plot structure of the classic 1994 film Little Giants with more musical numbers than a Broadway revival of Chicago.
In other words Lagaan is a period drama about a David versus Goliath sports match that features multiple musical numbers. I don’t know why America has never made a film like this but it should. Like right now. Seriously my first Bollywood film could not have hit anymore of my niche fandoms if it had dressed up Aamir Khan in a cape.
If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll know that I have a tendency to get overly excited when a character actor I love shows up unexpectedly in a film I’m watching. Let me tell you when Paul Blackthorne appeared on my screen wearing the ridiculous facial hair of an eighteenth century Englishman I literally jumped off my couch. Genre fans will know Blackthorne from his roles as Harry Dresden and Quentin Lance. Apparently this was his first film role. He’s the bad guy captain mentioned above and there is a scene where he actually twirls his mustache. It is glorious.
Blackthorne’s villainy brings me to perhaps my most interesting takeaway from this movie. Indian audiences see the British in the way American audiences see Germans or Russians. The film takes it as a given that as soon as you hear that British accent you know you’re dealing with a bad guy. It portrays almost all of the British characters in the film as mean, cruel, and unapologetically racist almost to the point of being comical. I knew that there was still lingering resentment about British Colonialism, I’m sure there always will be, but to see it with such casual, unabashed ferocity in a film made as recently as 2001 is surprising to me. I certainly don’t want to read too much into Indian culture from one film but it is a thought that I have noted and will keep track of now in both my film viewings and future Indian cultural encounters.
British buffoonery aside I must say again that I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it certainly gave me for than a few insights into the Bollywood film industry which is exactly what one of my Subtitle Subversives selections should do. I highly recommend this. Definitely worth making the time for……. even at 226 minutes.