Movie Review: Lagaan

Reviewed by Warren Ross

It is ironic for an Objectivist to be recommending a movie made in one of the most mystical countries on earth, and which contains a lengthy religious scene. But “Lagaan” is a fundamentally this-worldly movie whose focus is a struggle over important values. “Lagaan” means “tax.” “Lagaan” is the story of the fight of a town in British-controlled India to extract itself from crushing taxes. The British commandant has made a deal with the local Indian Rajah to double tax the town, in order to make up for leniency in a prior drought-stricken year. When the people go to complain, the commandant offers them a pernicious deal: He will rescind all taxes for three years if the townspeople beat the British in a game of cricket. If the British win, the tax will be tripled. The basic conflict is heightened by the fact that the townspeople do not know how to play cricket! However, at the urging of the self-elected town leader, Bhuvan, and with the help of the sister of the commandant, the townspeople prepare for the final showdown with the British team.

The corrupt commandant and the game of cricket aren’t Bhuvan’s only obstacles. One of his most difficult challenges is the fatalism of his own townspeople. He must convince them, repeatedly, that success is possible, that the effort is worth it, and that they are in control of their own destiny. Bhuvan’s speeches in this regard are a remarkable feature of the movie. He must overcome their determinism while building a team, teaching them to play an unknown game, and demanding extraordinary commitment and effort from them. His own virtue, continuous assertion of leadership responsibility, and conviction of the power of volition, are inspiring aspects of this movie.

The best feature of the movie is its plotting. The screenwriter knows how to build tension and milk the conflict. In scene after scene, he adds additional obstacles for Bhuvan and the townspeople to overcome. Whether it’s racism, a spy planted by the commandant, or ignorance of the characteristics of a cricket ball, the writer keeps traps and hindrances coming and coming. Even during the game of cricket, which takes up half the movie, the suspense is almost unendurable.

Although one might have expected strong doses of it, this movie is not fundamentally anti-British. As if to emphasize that the conflict with the commandant is about choice and justice and not about Indians vs. the British, the screenwriter adds three scenes that show the British to be honorable and just. The higher British authorities actually punish the commandant severely for his actions. In this regard, the movie is quite different from other Indian movies (and many Western ones as well!), which focus unjustly on unrepresentative British brutality, or manufacture cruelty outright.

The theme of the movie is man’s control over his own destiny, which is also a very different theme from other Indian movies. A cross-cultural love element further emphasizes that it’s man’s character and values, not his origin or ethnicity, that is important. Not only does the plot itself, in action, dramatize this theme, but it is made explicit in many of the speeches. Interestingly, even though there is a “prayer meeting” the night before the big cricket finale, this doesn’t detract too much from the theme. Given the entire context of the movie, the vestigial religious elements are minor, and this religious scene is more like a pre-game fight song than a truly religious ceremony.

Three other minor negative aspects of the movie should be noted: It is in Hindi with English subtitles, which may deter some viewers. Also, the movie is quite long, definitely a two-reeler – so allow time. Finally, there are lengthy Indian songs interspersed. Although these are occasionally beautiful (especially the song with the two women contenders for Bhuvan, which won “Best Song” in India), they can be skipped (or partially skipped if you want to get their flavor) to hasten along the story.

Despite the minor negatives, this is a remarkable movie – better than any Hollywood movie in the last few years. Take “Rocky,” transplant it from the sleazy streets of Philadelphia to a parched Indian town a hundred years ago, raise the stakes and the obstacles tenfold, get rid of the down-and-out ex-mob debt collector and replace him with an articulate young visionary as the main character, and add in an explicit identification of the theme, and you have “Lagaan.” It’s surprising that we have to go to another corner of the planet and view a movie in a foreign language to derive great value from the cinema, but it is gratifying that it’s there for us to experience.

An HOS member observed that if the values portrayed in this movie had been embedded in Indian culture at the time, there would probably have been no need for British colonization. Very true. The bare minimum for a society to be independent and self-sustaining is the conviction that such a condition is possible, that the citizens have the choice to direct their own actions, and that success on this earth is possible.

One final comment relating the movie to current events: View this movie if you want to see clearly why we should be supporting India over Pakistan in the recent confrontation, and in principle. Yes, this is a new kind of movie for India, with a relatively untraditional theme, but the fact that it was made there shows the possibilities for a future cultural change and the difference from Pakistan. India, at least, learned some things from the British. In Islamist India, which eventually became Pakistan, British culture never “took.” A movie like “Lagaan” couldn’t be made in Pakistan for another 500 years.

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