Lagaan, which translates to “taxation,” isn’t based on a true story, but it may as well serve as the origin story for India’s most popular sport. In the film, which turns 20 today, colonial India is introduced to the game of cricket by way of English imperialism. An arrogant British captain (Paul Blackthorne) bets the season’s taxes on a game, literally banking on the villagers’ lack of knowledge. But Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), tired of the monarchy’s stranglehold on his home, takes it upon himself to not only learn cricket but master the game while their village’s fate hangs in the balance.
In revisiting the drama two decades later, it’s clear why it’s a title to return to over and over. As far as the formula goes, Lagaan stays true to its Bollywood DNA. There are a number of catchy song-and-dance sequences, though the songs play more as diegetic numbers that are additive to the storytelling instead of the fantasy sequences that the industry sometimes leans on. (It helps that the songs are bangers, helmed by the great A.R. Rahman). It’s an epic sports drama with pieces of romance and comedy all wrapped into an almost four-hour runtime. Despite the length, it’s hugely engrossing and well-plotted.
But it is also a uniquely Indian story. India only gained independence from Britain in 1947, and Lagaan isn’t afraid to show the realities of colonial British rule, where every brown face was treated like a slave to the white man. In one scene, a low caste man accidentally pricks the horse he is cleaning. Blackthorne abuses him both verbally and physically, treating him worse than the animal he was working on. In another, a higher status guard cheers for India during the cricket match and receives a slap in the face for rooting against Britain. Juxtaposed against one another, the film portrays the upper caste Indians as working in higher status jobs than the lower caste, but at the end of the day all Indians serve the British.
Lagaan also shows the realities of rural India, where the caste system reigns supreme. The film humanizes the Dalit, or “Untouchable,” caste who are often shown as and believed to be less than human. Through the character Kachra (Aditya Lakhia), the innately poor treatment of lower castes is shown realistically: At first he is shunned from joining the team due to his societal status, but then the idea is turned on its head without fanfare—Kachra can bowl the ball with a spin. Suddenly he is invaluable to the team; he is embraced as part of the team, despite what he was born into. It’s a subtle moment that feels as important to the story today as it did in 2001.
Of course, there’s the Oscar of it all. It’s hard to talk about Lagaan without mentioning that it’s the last Indian film to receive a nomination for Best Foreign Language (now, International) Film at the Academy Awards. Because of this, the film’s legacy looms larger than life all these years later. While there are many theories and explanations for this fact, it still begs the question of what, exactly, made Lagaan stand out as only the third film from the subcontinent to break through and receive a nomination?
The answer is likely political: Producer/star Khan hosted free screenings in Los Angeles leading up to the nominations in order to spread the word about the film, and also fulfill the Academy requirement around a film’s theater run and the voting body’s need to see 80% of the submissions. Khan was certain that if voters actually took the time to see the film, they’d be enamored by it. The trick was to get butts into seats. “We just started showing it to whoever we could, even the hotel staff,” he said at the time.
But I also think Lagaan is a Trojan horse for Bollywood at large. All of my gushing above points to the fact that it is indeed a masterpiece, complete with beautiful cinematography and costuming. But the real beauty lies in the fact the film broke the mold of what Bollywood could be to foreign audiences. Those on the outskirts of the largest Indian film industry likely only knew the term “Bollywood” to mean frilly romance musicals with impossibly long runtimes, and dismissed any film that veered in that direction.
But the funny thing is, Lagaan is all of those things, just wrapped in the different packaging of a historical sports period piece, and it tricked viewers—and voters—into believing that it somehow wasn’t checking those boxes even as they sat through six-minute songs about a drought and romantic dance numbers at a puja. Lagaan was the most expensive Indian film to be made at the time of its release and the price tag directly correlates to the quality of the final product. Khan was at the peak of his stardom and on the cusp of transitioning into one of India’s biggest producers, and his collaborators (like composer Rahman and cinematographer Anil Mehta) were also at the top of their game.
Maybe audiences fell in love with the film because those musical elements are genuinely excellent and might remind them of the yesteryear Hollywood musicals of their childhood. Or maybe it’s that the visuals fluctuate from dry and earthy to lush and vibrant, the camera in love with its subjects. Maybe it’s because there is a love triangle alongside clearly demarcated heroes and villains, and an underdog story that is so enthralling you can’t look away.
Whatever it is, Lagaan proved that Bollywood storytelling can be top of the line, and appealing to anyone who is willing to give it a chance. And 20 years later, it will still sweep you up in its magic.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.