I recently watched the film Lagaan (2001) (Hindi and English with English subtitles) on DVD and was very impressed. Although the film is very long (3 hours, 45 minutes!) it did not drag at all which, for me, puts its director (Ashutosh Gowarikar) in the same class as David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai) as one of those rare filmmakers who can make me overcome my feeling that films should not exceed two hours, and preferably should be 90 minutes.

Lagaan takes place in a remote village region in India in 1893 during British colonial rule. The area has been hit by a drought for several years and the impoverished villagers are unable to pay the tax (‘lagaan’) to their British military rulers.

In seeking relief from the tax, some of the villagers try to ask for a temporary amnesty, but run afoul of the local British military head Captain Russell who, in a fit of pique because of a prior run-in with one of the villagers (the hero of the film) actually doubles the tax instead. When the appalled villagers protest, Russell raises the stakes even more. He says that he will now triple the tax but offers them the following wager: he will exempt the village from any tax at all for three years if the villagers can field a cricket team that beats the team comprised of the British military officers. Since the British officers grew up playing the game and even in India play cricket all the time, while the villagers have never even seen the game, the villagers seem doomed. But having no option but to agree to this unbalanced wager, the villagers set about trying to learn to play cricket within the three months allocated to them, and this preparation and the actual climactic game forms the main storyline of the film.

The villagers who form the cricket team are made up of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, handicapped, and members of the so-called ‘untouchable’ caste, and they have to learn to overcome their traditional animosities for the sake of the village. This rag-tag group, lacking proper equipment or coaching (except for some guidance from the sympathetic sister of Captain Russell who is appalled by her brother’s cruelty), have to resort to unorthodox training methods, such as catching chickens to improve their reflexes and fielding technique.

Clearly the cricket match is a metaphor for the independence struggle waged by India against the British, which resulted in the British being forced to leave in 1947. That struggle was a landmark in national liberation struggles, with people like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi successfully managing to forge a highly diverse and large population, riddled with religious, ethnic, language, caste, and class differences, into a cohesive force against a common enemy. Unfortunately, that unity was short-lived with ongoing Hindu-Muslim clashes, the partitioning into India and Pakistan, the Kashmir area still under dispute, Sikh dissatisfaction, the isolation of the so-called ‘untouchable; caste, and so on. But they managed to work together enough during crucial periods to make continuing British control impossible. Like the village cricket team being forced to learn how to play the game of their oppressor, the Indian independence leaders had to learn the ‘game’ of British politics and public opinion in order to advance their goals.

Cricket as a metaphor for the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle against the British is extended when we realize that the demise of the British Empire after World War II correlated with the decline in the dominance of their cricket. Now India and Pakistan are dominant cricket nations, regularly beating England in international contests (called ‘Test’ matches), and two current players who are easily among the best batsmen of all time (Sachin Tendulkar of India and Brian Lara of West Indies) come from former British colonies. Sri Lanka also fields competitive international teams. While in Lagaan the villagers were totally ignorant of the game and amused by the Englishmen’s passion for what they considered a childish pastime, nowadays the Indian subcontinent has arguably the most enthusiastic cricket fans in the world and there is probably no corner, however remote, where children are not enthusiastically playing it.

You don’t really need to understand cricket in order to appreciate this fine film, but in a later posting, I will provide a Cliffs notes version for those who are bewildered by the appeal of this very strange game.

(Note: If you are a member of the Case community, you can borrow the Lagaan DVD from the Kelvin Smith Library.)

Next: Lagaan and the Bollywood film tradition.

POST SCRIPT: The real reason why the attack on Iraq was wrong

Periodically, some defender of the invasion of Iraq will resurrect the idea that Iraq did possess so-called weapons of mass destruction. The latest people to do this are Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Peter Hoekstra, whose claims have been disavowed even by Defense Department officials and Fox News.

Although their claims have been discredited, it is easy for such discussions to obscure an important and fundamental fact. The immorality and illegality of the invasion of Iraq has nothing to do with whether such weapons existed or not so whether they are found or not is not central to the issue of whether the attack was justified. The war was wrong because Iraq had neither attacked nor even threatened to attack the US. What the US engaged in was an unjustified war of aggression.

What the lack of discovery of weapons shows is that the Bush administration lied even about their unjustified rationale for the attack.

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