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Lagaan: The battle of the bat

The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. The war of taxation was clinched on the cricket pitch of Champaner.

Ashutosh Gowariker's "Lagaan" - now running in India - takes us back to Queen Victoria's era of 1893. The English Crown having taken over the administration of Indian provinces from the East India Company after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence (depending on the side you are looking from) was edgy and nervous. It put down every little dissenting murmur with a ruthless hand.

At Champaner in central India, Captain Russell, an arrogant Englishman, challenges the farmers to a game of cricket. If they win, they would not have to pay "lagaan" (tax in the form of grains) to the English administration for three years. If they lose, they would have to part with a triple tax.

At three hours and forty-two minutes, Gowariker's work does not sag at any point of time, but it is so predictable that one can easily say how the following page of the script will shape up.

Aamir Khan, who produced "Lagaan" and acted in it, is undoubtedly a good performer, but after seeing his earlier movies, such as "Ghulam", "Earth" and "Sarfarosh", one begins to feel that his range is limited. Gracy Singh, Khan's love interest on the screen, is awfully disappointing to the point of appearing silly.

The acting honours in "Lagaan" clearly belong to Paul Blackthorne (Russel) and Rachel Shelley. Blackthorne, a British stage artist, is entirely believable; his Hindi diction sounds exactly how it should. Shelley (also from British theatre), who plays the part of his sister and who falls in love with Bhuvan, (or Aamir Khan) portrays an exceptional depth of emotions in a role that demands acting with one's eyes.

"Lagaan" was shot near Bhuj in Gujarat at a single six-month go. The actors braved temperatures from 4 degrees centigrade to 45 degrees, and Shelley is said to have been upset with some of the things she was made to adjust with, including the way additional Hindi lines were added to her dialogue. But she survived, and the film was made.

But, what I completely fail to understand is why Aamir Khan - so methodical and committed that he made extensive research for this picture, and even picked up period pieces in the U. K. to give a greater feel of authenticity to "Lagaan" - should have chosen Singh, and let the movie run for so long. If it does not evoke yawns, it is merely because the work keeps a viewer on an emotional high, one of the easiest tricks that Indian cinema resorts to.

However, "Lagaan" has a novel theme of fighting a battle with the bat.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated July 6 2001)

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