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Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India Reviews

Superb entertainment from India, and proof that the often derided Bollywood film industry is entirely capable of beating Hollywood at its own game. The year is 1893, and the farmers of the tiny, central Indian village of Champener are chafing under a stiff, British-imposed "lagaan" (land tax). Each year, the raja of every province in British India must collect a portion of each farmer's harvest in exchange for the British cantonment's ongoing protection against attacks by neighboring rulers. This year, however, a terrible drought produced a paltry harvest, so the raja (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) petitions the cantonment to waive the tax. But instead of mercy, dastardly Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) shows only malicious caprice: He threatens to double the lagaan, unless the village takes him up on an unusual wager. Russell proposes a game of cricket between his officers and 11 of the village's men. If they win, Champener and every other village in the province will be exempt from the tax for three years. If they lose, the village will have to pay triple lagaan. Aware that his fellow farmers have little chance of paying any lagaan at all, young Bhuvan (Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan) steps forward and agrees to the three-day match, despite the howls of protest from the other villagers, who've never so much as seen a game of cricket, let alone played one. But after a few humiliating episodes at the hands of Captain Russell — and an inspirational musical number — the village throws its support behind Bhuvan. On hand to help level the playing field by surreptitiously teaching Bhuvan and his rag-tag team the rules of the game is Captain Russell's sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Elizabeth, of course, soon falls for bare-chested Bhuvan, inflaming his jealous girlfriend, Gauri (Gracy Singh, in a rather thankless role), and forming the third side of the inevitable love triangle. Like much Bollywood product, director Ashutosh Gowariker's stunningly choreographed, four-hour spectacle (reportedly one of the most expensive films in the industry's history) is a fascinating mix of Hollywood genres and tropes. But rather than looking West for thematic inspiration, Gowariker turns to his country's own turbulent history: The plot may be straight out of the Hollywood formula file and the character types — Russell is the culmination of every mustache-twirling, liver-lipped villain from THE PERILS OF PAULINE to TITANIC — but the story of 19th-century India's struggles against the forces of imperialism is entirely its own. (In English and Hindi, with English Subtitles.)