Melodramatic 'Lagaan' is hampered by length, style
Because most movies played most theaters on double bills until the 1970s, the studios required that almost everything be shorter than two hours - generally 75 to 110 minutes.
If a picture ran longer, and especially if it ran more than 2_ hours, such as "Peyton Place," "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Gone With the Wind," you knew it had to be packed with plot threads and interesting characters to justify every minute.
We went the other way in the 1990s, when Kevin Costner alone offered a career tutorial on how to stretch short subjects to epic length.
In teeming India, where about 900 movies are produced a year, many are long, but few last 225 minutes - that's three hours and 45 minutes for those without a handy slide rule - as does "Lagaan," subtitled "Once Upon a Time in India" to emphasize its fable quality.
It's a Bollywood musical - Bollywood being the term coined for the expansive Bombay film industry. "Lagaan" also is the first of its kind to reach beyond theaters that specialize in Indian fare.
It was nominated earlier this year for the best foreign language film Oscar, albeit the weakest of the five nominees and inferior to some of the 46 contenders that were submitted and didn't make the final slate of five.
But if you've never seen a Bollywood musical, "Lagaan" is emblematic of the genre and more opulent than most.
Spoken partly in English but primarily in Hindi (with subtitles, of course), it's set in 1893 in British-occupied Champaner, a village in central India.
A two-year drought is strangling the livelihoods of the already poor farmers.
When the tyrannical Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), commander of the British regiment, decides he has been slighted by one of the natives, he imposes an unreasonably high lagaan.
That's a land tax the farmers pay to the local rajah, who in turn passes most of it along to the British.
The handsome, young, impertinent Bhuvan (Aamir Khan, who also produced) protests and is drawn into a wager with Russell. If after three months of practice the locals can beat the British occupants in a three-day cricket match, the farmers need pay no lagaan for three years. But if the Brits win, the locals must pay triple the lagaan.
Not only have the Indians never played, they don't even understand the rules. They have one British ally, though - Russell's patrician sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), who has a discreet crush on Bhuvan. But then, so does the jealous Indian beauty Gauri (Gracy Singh).
Elders of both nationalities are furious with the younger men for striking such an agreement without consulting anyone.
The plot is a variation on every American underdog sports movie, and the love triangle is lifted from every class-conscious romance extant.
Several elements, though, besides the somewhat elevated stakes distinguish "Lagaan."
Twenty-five minutes into the picture I began to challenge my memory: Wasn't this supposed to be a musical• And being ever so obliging, out of whole cloth the characters suddenly broke into an ensemble production number.
By every yardstick of Western cinema and theater, 25 minutes is 20 to 24 minutes too late to introduce the conceit of musicals - that people break into song and dance to express themselves.
By the time the film ends, there have been seven or eight such numbers. Longish and as entertaining as they are, with elementary choreography that contains a lot of romping, running, swaying and skipping, the songs are dwarfed by the climactic cricket match that consumes 75 to 80 minutes and feels longer than the average American sports season.
Americans understandably confounded by the rules of cricket are unlikely to learn as much as they need to from Elizabeth's explanation, which she waves off after just a few sentences.
A.R. Rahman's score and Anil Mehta's wide-screen color cinematography do a lot to lighten "Lagaan's" length, but the film's wildly melodramatic style is off the chart.
Some admirers patronize "Lagaan" for its foreign quaintness. The ebullient musical numbers truly are charming. But as writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker protracts every sequence, you can't help concluding he measures worth by the minute.
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Stars: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley
MPAA Rating: R, for language and some violence
Where: Regent Square