When you think of how many movies keep you engrossed for three running hours, the brilliance of Lagaan is evident from keeping your interest for all of its four hours (with an interval and some boring ads and trailors thrown in). It could have been a few minutes shorter - but that would be at the cost of detail, drama, humor, or perhaps a silent cinematographic transition. Different sections of the audience appreciate different aspects of a film - and a film that can please as many sections without getting on the nerves of another must be appreciated as a truly complete film. And in that respect, Lagaan is a perfect example of complete film, a classy entertainer, with superior technical execution - like Sholay (the only other comparable movie).
The strength of "Lagaan" is in the people behind its making. Ashutosh Gowariker leads the way as a director first, and as much as the man behind the story and screenplay. Anil Mehta uses color and camera to bring out the mood in each scene. A period movie set in 1893 would rely on sets and costumes - but limiting the movie to one village called Champaner and nearby British Cantonment makes it easier on Nitin Desai and Bhanu Athaiya to successfully take you back by a century with none of the usual faux pas.
A R Rahman´s background score combines with Anil Mehta´s visual brilliance for a strong audio-visual impact. The songs impress by themselves, and instrumental notes from the songs work brilliantly in the background track - that keeps you listening and appreciating it from the titles to the credits at the end. The songs blend into the movie with Javed Akhtar´s strong lyrics and are innovative choreography. There may be some whispers about the songs affecting the narrative but there is an audience that wants to see movies for the songs and choreography - and Lagaan manages the balance between narrative and song-and-dance well. About the cast, everyone brings life into their roles. Aamir Khan stands out - with his screen time to movie time ratio most likely to beat some of Kamal Haasan´s movies.
Now, about the movie itself - it is a modernized presentation of four-decade old "Naya Daur". It is a movie about common men, led by a strong-minded individual to overcome resistance and differences in opinion - and standing their ground for a cause against a powerful opposition. There is a cause for a fight, there is a fight, and there is a moral victory in the end. This is the stuff that most good-over-bad and other moral stories are made of, but the details in the script of Lagaan make it work.
The humor built into individual characters as Aamir Khan assembles a cricket team and respond to the challenge of the British General is most entertaining. At the cost of sounding sexist, some of the ignorant humorous descriptions of cricket amused me by how close it was to what some women in the house would say when all men are glued to the TV and households come to a standstill (often depriving the women of some boring TV serial). This humor is certainly a strength of the movie, blended most brilliantly into a serious and inspirational narrative. Full credit to the director, screenplay, dialogues, and the performers.
About the story itself - it is incidental to the movie. Lagaan is more about spirit, inspiration, and cinematic brilliance rather than a story that will move you. And should I say, thankfully there is no marriage, no rituals and functions, and the stuff that most of 90´s were made off. The movie works at the level of spirit and inspiration, and not at some perceived lost cultural value in society - and most thankfully so.
And to conclude this review - I must say Lagaan and Sholay, being two very different movies share a lot in common - in how complete they are. Think about this - what´s so common to these movies.
Extra long movies, suppressed societies, domination through power, the spirit to fight, inspiring and building a team, humor and entertainment in a serious script, brown barren landscapes, strong people and characters, story of a single village, and we can keep counting ...
So, here I am shooting off a feature by feature comparison of the two movies.
Length and directions - Two "too" long movies - where the length didn´t bore you. Two directors, who got their formula right.
Performances and characters - Sholay was easily better with a different genre of performers and more complete characters. Lagaan suffers from the typical "Kamal Haasan" syndrome - of centering around one character.
The love story - If it were not for the Amitabh-Jaya love story of Sholay, Lagaan would be far superior with how the romantic angle never interferes or disturbs on the narrative.
Creating a whole village - Two movies that successfully take you to a different society with pains, pleasures, and feelings that are not so common with what we associate with.
Terror - Gabbar Singh scores and its an unfair comparison here. The British general is more about misplaced pride than terror.
Humor - Lagaan wins, with humor being a part of its people - unlike Sholay which had parallel tracks and comic characters like "Soorma Bhopali" and the "Jailor".
Visual effects - Technologies have evolved in 25 years, but the brilliance of Anil Mehta in Lagaan is still only comparable to what we saw in Sholay. Songs and dances - Lagaan scores with its songs, though R D Burman could undo all the brilliance of A R Rahman with one Mehbooba.
Background music - It would be hard to tell the two apart in how well they served the movie.
Climax - Sholay wins, for the stark and different end - and this is one weakness for Lagaan to be a little more cliched, heroic, and melodramatic. Yet, the climax of Lagaan has its moments and tries to be different in its own way. How often has a cricket match formed a climax (without getting so farcical as Chamatkar, Maalamaal, and the Dev Anand fiasco which incidentally again had Aamir Khan at the crease)?
So - for those who still believe that Sholay is the best entertainer Hindi cinema has seen till date, here is reason to rejoice that Lagaan is comparable if not better.