I’ve watched a lot of sports movies in my life. Movies about every game from baseball to chess to in-line skating. Everything between Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Disney Channel’s Johnny Tsunami. Over the past century, there have been productions for just about any sport or hobby, no matter how niche. The potential natural drama of any game, with its push and pull and battle between parties, makes the subject a perfect fit for the screen. Whether the story of scrappy underdogs beating the odds, a star’s rise to the top, or a biopic of a talented but damaged athlete, sports movies seem like an obvious subject. Within this sea of countless movies, the majority remain in the realm of “just fine.” Where major sports have their few classics and mega hits and even the smaller sports can produce their own guilty pleasures, the majority fall forgotten, doomed by their own repetitive mediocrity.
Every sport may have its own movie, but only few manage to produce truly great stories. Luckily enough, a sport that does have a great movie is cricket.
Lagaan is a very famous movie. It made all sorts of ridiculous money and was nominated for an Oscar. However, there has been little to keep the movie in the American consciousness, as I found out about the movie through a Youtube comment. Even being on Netflix, this Bollywood cricket musical hadn’t managed to catch my attention before. The story centers on a young prideful Indian farmer named Bhuvan and his conflict with the sadistic Captain Russell, who levies a bet over the taxes he demands during a severe drought. He challenges his squad of British officers to a game against the villagers, offering 3 years of tax exemption if they win, but a deadly tripling of the tax if they lose. Its plot isn’t so unfamiliar, being another David vs. Goliath story of the scrappy and passionate farmers going up against the cold British officers of colonial India in a game they had never played before. It’s full of training montages, self-doubt, opposing characters coming together against adversity, and plenty of inspirational speeches with their backs against the wall. The movie is not revolutionary in its story, and it has all the same tropes that have defined the classic sports movie.
The difference between this movie and every underdog story before it starts with its presentation, as I don’t remember any sprawling Bollywood dance numbers in Rudy. Where Lagaan sets itself apart is in how it presents its game, characters, and music to all serve the plot and its message, creating an epic, nearly four hour ride that never loses sight of the fun that these movies could be.
One of the earliest distinctions that Lagaan has over almost any other sports movie is that the sport itself matters to the themes and message of the story. Cricket is a British sport in both origin and culture. Its history goes back centuries, from its earliest forms to its development into an international professional sport and the national sport of England. The rules and traditions of the sport began on English soil, where places like Lord’s Cricket Ground in London are revered as the “home of cricket.” Not only is the sport British, but has just as long been a sport of the upper crust, the ultimate pastime of the good ol’ boys and royalty; the very people in charge of running the British Empire. The very growth and the spread of the sport to places like Australia, Africa, and Asia are tied to the long arms British Empire and their conquered territories. This imperial shadow is the same context that introduces us into Lagaan, where we are shown a village of farmers living under the harsh rule of the British Raj and the cartoonishly cruel Captain Russell. In 1892, the year this story takes place, cricket was still in its infancy, and the game was still foreign to the farmers, making fun of all the goofiness that remains in the game today.
But a lot has changed since the 19th century, the British Empire is no more, India is an independent nation, and the English are no longer on top of the cricket world.
India played their first official Test match (the highest form of competition for cricket) in 1932 at Lord’s, but only claimed their first Test win two decades later. The early years of international cricket in India saw the national team struggle against nations like England and Australia, two teams that had dominated Test cricket for the past century. Wins for India were rare, and most came against other nations also considered weaker to the top competition. Yet, as time went on, Indian cricket continued to develop and improve, slowly becoming more and more of a serious threat. Developing styles that complimented the country's weather and conditions, they built a legacy of strong batsmen and deadly bowlers, generating a now renowned home-field advantage against their foreign competition. By the 80s, they were World Champions, and by the 90s, they were developing players considered among the greatest of all time. Nowadays, Indian cricket regularly sits as the #1 Test team in the world, now considered one of the “Big 3” cricket nations, along with England and Australia, teams they now defeat regularly. The rise of Indian cricket is genuinely incredible, not only for reaching the heights they have, but also for remaining at the top for so long and becoming such a consistent presence at the pinnacle of the game.
This is the historical context that Lagaan exists within, and for an Indian audience, the parallels between the real history and the story would not be missed.
As the plot unfolds and training montages continue, Bhuvan struggles to convince the other villagers to agree to the seemingly outrageous bet, to conquer their oppressors with their own national sport. Starting completely clueless, they find help from the Captain’s visiting sister and begin to learn the game, growing stronger and better. As the villagers' talents continue to develop, their own styles and tactics emerge, not only learning and improving at cricket but making the game their own. While this sort of arc is a trope bordering on cliche in sports movies, it holds some extra meaning for this story in particular, where this sort of development is much the same that Indian cricket saw itself.
Where it was once the sport of their colonizers, Indian cricket has many times surpassed the country who introduced them to it. Whether it be their World Cup win in 1983 at Lord’s Cricket Ground itself, or their repeated claiming of the #1 ranking, there is zero doubt that cricket no longer just belongs to the nation that invented it. While fiction, the farmers of the movie exemplify the same story, while setting it in a period with its own historical significance.
As the story of Lagaan unfolds, the victory of the villagers feels familiar and even allegorical, linking the symbolic rise of the sport with the fight for Independence as well as recognizing the cultural remnants left behind by the colonial regime.
There is a lot to talk about with Lagaan. It's one of those movies where all the pieces work in tremendous unison. The elaborate music numbers compliment the core themes and help flesh out its side characters in fun and engaging ways. The historical setting evokes the postcolonial experience by emphasizing all the pieces of culture and tradition the British left behind, as well as the pieces they tried to destroy. The underdog plot rarely surprises you, but the movie is at its best in simply watching the smaller moments unfold.
Lagaan is a four hour cricket musical that wastes no time and leaves little room to ever feel dull or slow. It’s cheesy, lighthearted, and familiar, but it accomplishes more than most any movie like it ever has.
-Reed Sawyer is OBC's Blogster at Large, exploring the disc golf empire of the greater Boston area.