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Friday, July 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Indulge in the splendor of the splashy movie musical with 'Lagaan'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India"


***

With Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. 225 minutes (shown with intermission). Rated PG for language and some violence. In Hindi and English with English subtitles. Varsity, through Thursday.

Gather 'round, fellow hummers — there's a new movie musical in town, so just ignore those members of the Anti-Musicals Squad out there rolling their eyes. "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India" is a great big Bollywood musical, complete with song and dance and doomed love triangles and elegantly photographed men playing cricket. And it's terrific fun, in a way that only great big musical fantasies can be.

The strapping Indian box-office star Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a villager in 1893 India who rebels at a new land tax (the lagaan) imposed by the British occupying forces. Because this is a musical, a novel solution to the problem is proposed: The villagers and the Brits will play a cricket match, and if the villagers win, the tax is off. If the Brits win — and a nastier, more sneery lot you never did see — the tax is tripled. And, of course, the villagers don't know how to play cricket, so all does not bode well.

But wait — the British captain's beautiful sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), chafing against her brother's authority, offers to secretly teach them. She falls in love with Bhuvan, who is already promised to the vivacious Gaudi (Gracy Singh), and the three of them proceed to sing about the situation at some length, accompanied by some nifty fantasy dance sequences. In between, much cricket is played, building to the climactic final match. (Even after four hours of "Lagaan" I'm still mystified by the rules of cricket, but despite this — or perhaps because of it — the match is suspenseful all the same.)

As history, "Lagaan" is pretty silly — but then again, students of the 1950s have undoubtedly determined that rival gang members did not, in fact, taunt each other by performing triple pirouettes. It's all about spectacle, and it's a wonder to behold. In the musical numbers, hundreds of extras whirl in gloriously colorful saris, as the parched India landscape stretches beyond the camera's reach. At the cricket match, thousands of white-clad spectators form an endless line. And as a ball rolls off the playing field, a gorgeously bedecked elephant gravely raises a foot for it to pass.

"Lagaan," a 2001 Oscar nominee for best foreign film, is the most expensive Indian film ever made, and it shows in every frame. Revel in its colors, wallow in its melodrama, immerse yourself in its photography (there's even a riotous Busby Berkeley overhead-camera moment) — and be glad that, at least in India, the movie musical isn't yet dead.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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