I am still in the toe dipping stage when it comes to seeing Bollywood musicals. I would say that my first one was "Bride and Prejudice" except that it was made in England and not India, so the correct answer would be "Dil Se..," which I checked out because I was hooked on the song Chal Chaiyya Chaiyya," which Spike Lee used at the start of "Inside Man." I picked "Lagaan" as my next Bollyhood film because it appeared to be the highest rated one I could find, and had the reputation of being the most expensive and successful Bollywood film ever made when it came out. After having spent an entire afternoon watching it I can certainly understand why it has such a lofty reputation.
The full title of the film is "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India," which I did not know at the time I watched it. That revelation is intriguing because it fosters an implicit comparison between this 2001 film from director Ashutosh Gowariker and the Sergio Leone movies "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America" (but not the Robert Rodriguez film "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"). The setting is a small village in the north of India in 1893, when the country is under the rule of Queen Victoria's British Empire. The land has been suffering from drought for over a year and the villagers and their Raja wants to be exempted from the crippling tax ("lagaan") that they owe the British government. The snobbish Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne) makes a counter-offer: the village can play his cricket team. If the villagers win they will not have to pay the lagaan for three years, but if the English team wins they will have to pay three-times the lagaan. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a young farmer, takes the bet to the dismay of his friends and the rest of the village, only one of whom has ever played cricket before. But the villagers have an unexpected ally in Russell's sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who knows the bet is unfair and decides to help teach Bhuvan and the others the game. Elizabeth is clearly smitten with Bhuvan, much to the consternation of Gauri (Aamir Khan), the young woman who assumes Bhuvan is her intended.
Bhuvan is oblivious to his being the point in common on this particular love triangle, because his attention is first and foremost on the big match. One of the reasons that this movie runs three hours and forty-four minutes is because it devotes the last third of the film to the cricket match. The cricket match takes several days to play, so it makes sense that the last third of the film is all about the match. Now, it could be that the idea of watching a movie where the final conflict is a really long cricket match might dissuade you from seeing the movie more than the fact it is almost four hours long with subtitles because most of the dialogues and songs are in Hindi. But since the villagers are learning the game that allows those of us in the audience who have never seen a cricket match to pick up enough to appreciate what is happening at the end. This is of no small importance because the rules of cricket come into play several times throughout the match, as do the particular characteristics of the various villagers on the cricket team, and I ended up like that part of the film more than the charming practice of breaking into giant production numbers periodically throughout the film (including the best training montage set to music since the original "Rocky"). So there are plenty of reasons for wanting to check out this film, even if you cannot watch it all in one sitting (but there is an Intermission and a opportunity to make dinner in which curry would be the dominant spice).
In terms of special features there is only one "Unseen Scene" included on the DVD, but it runs over 17 minutes. I have been trying to figure out if it was cut because somehow having a movie run four hours and one minute instead of three hours and 44 minutes makes bad economic sense for movie theaters in India, or if it is because in setting up one of the key parts of the big match it might give away too much, or maybe because Captain Russell goes beyond the pale in his treatment of Elizabeth. The deleted scene reinforces the interesting idea that there is a clear line of demarcation between Russell's cricket team and the rest of the English in India. It is Elizabeth who articulates the idea that what her brother is doing is not fair, but Russell's commanding officers believe in fair play as well. Notice their behavior during the match and how they applaud the best of both teams, as if they did not have a vested interest in the outcome. The irony that the English players who pride themselves on being great sportsmen are lousy sports is pretty blatant and ultimately we dismiss them as racist caricatures. That is a minor complaint all things considered (which would include the history of British colonialism on the sub-continent), because "Lagaan" is pretty entertaining. No wonder it has the reputation it enjoys.