Once Upon A Time In India

1893 - These were times when most of India had come to accept that the British would rule for another 100 years. The Rajahs had gradually lost most of their legendary power and wealth and were now only nominal rulers –
in some cases mere tax collectors on behalf of the British. The British, adopting a dual policy, protected the Rajah’s territories from each other, and administered law and order. In exchange, they collected a tax, which
was paid by every farmer in the country. The submission of a portion of a farmer’s harvested crop in the form of agricultural tax to the ruler was known as “Lagaan.” (From

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Champaner was a small farming village in central India. On the outskirts of the village stands a British cantonment, commanded by a Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). Russell is capricious, arrogant and heartless, wielding the power of life and death over the villages under his jurisdiction.

Russell spends a lot of his time hunting game, but on this particular day, he keeps missing his target. The animals run out of range every time, just as he pulls the trigger. Then we see why: Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), one of the villagers from Champaner has been hiding in the bushes, throwing little stones at the animals just before Russell shoots, to scare them into safety. Bhuvan is eventually found out, and is brought before Russell. Russell points his gun at Bhuvan, telling him to run. Bhuvan stands his ground, refusing to be bullied. Russell doesn’t have the guts to actually pull the trigger and ends up shooting a rabbit instead. Bhuvan regards the Englishman with hatred, but can do nothing. Russell lets him go, but warns him that he won’t be as merciful next time.

Bhuvan’s spirits are lifted when Gauri (Gracy Singh), a girl from Champaner, comes to call him in for dinner.

When he gets back to the village, there is frantic activity – rain clouds have been spotted in the distance and everyone is excited at the prospect of rain. The villagers of Champaner are waiting desperately for the monsoon season to start. Their crops desperately need the rain – and without a good harvest, they would be able to afford anything after paying lagaan. The celebrations are in vein, however, the rain clouds pass over without letting go a single drop of rain. Their hopes dashed, the villagers go to their Rajah for help, saying that without rain, they won’t be able to pay the taxes. They beg the Rajah to request tax relief from the British.

The Rajah agrees to make the request, and meet with Captain Russell for lunch. Captain Russell is unmoved. He doesn’t seem to care. The Rajah continues to fight for the villagers, saying that the villagers will have nothing to eat. Captain Russell then offers a deal. If the Rajah eats the meat that’s being served for lunch, Russell will cancel the taxes for the year. The Rajah refuses, politely saying that he is a vegetarian. Russell continues to push, but the Rajah finally takes a stand, saying he is a vegetarian because his religion forbids the eating of meat, and he will never go against his god. Captain Russell purses his lip, angry that the Rajah refused to bend and declares that because the Rajah refused to eat meat, he’s going to implement DOUBLE lagaan that year. The Rajah knows there’s nothing more he can do. Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, who’s also at the lunch, is shocked that her brother could be such a bully. But he won’t hear any word of it and goes off hunting.

When the villagers hear about the double tax, they are bewildered. They decide to go to the Rajah again to ask for help. That afternoon, the Rajah is having tea at the British cantonment. When the villagers arrive, the British soldiers are playing a game of cricket. One of the batters hits a ball over the boundaries and it rolls to where the group of villagers is sitting. They pick up the ball and look at it in wonder – until one of the cricketers comes over and hits them for daring to touch the ball. The Rajah sees the commotion, and calms the villagers and the British soldiers, recommending that whatever it is that the villagers came for, it will wait until after the cricket game.

When the cricket game eventually ends, the villagers gather in front of the Rajah and beg for tax relief. The Rajah says his hands are tied. Russell interrupts, reminding them that he had already given them tax relief last year, so this year’s double tax merely makes up for what they owe from last year. Bhuvan is outraged and tells Russell that he didn’t sit through a stupid cricket game to have Russell be so flippant. Russell is insulted that Bhuvan called cricket “stupid” and issued a challenge. If Champaner produces a cricket team that can beat Russell’s team, he will forgive their taxes for three years – if they lose, Champaner will have to pay triple taxes. Bhuvan doesn’t say anything. Russell then recognizes Bhuvan from his hunting trip the day before and sneers as he ups the stakes: if the Indians beat the British in a cricket match, three years of taxes will be forgiven for the ENTIRE province; if the Indians lose, the entire province will have to pay triple lagaan. The villagers urge Bhuvan not to say anything, but Bhuvan agrees to the challenge.

Champaner and the villages of the province are in an uproar when they hear of Bhuvan agreeing to the challenge. They all think that they will have to pay triple tax. Bhuvan, however, is not so pessimistic. He and a group of his friends decide to go watch the British play, to learn the game. Unfortunately, cricket is not the most easily understood game, and the group is completely confused. But Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth, sees them watching the game and walks over to them. Through a translator, she offers to help them learn how to play, saying she wants to level the playing field. Bhuvan agrees to have her help and they set a time to meet the next day.

Soon, Bhuvan has with him a crew of novice cricketers. Each has his own quirk that will bring strength to the game: a chicken farmer, who spends most of his time trying to catch his chickens, is an excellent fielder. Another farmer, who likes to use his slingshot to hit pests, is an excellent pitcher/bowler. One of the servants (a lower caste Indian) has a deformed arm – and Bhuvan asks him to play. The villagers disagree, saying the servant is an “untouchable”. Bhuvan reveals their prejudice and shows them why the servant would be an asset. The servant’s deformed arm actually allows him bowl “curve” balls! As the days pass, more and more of the villagers are won over by the possibility that they might be able to play the game well – and beat the British. Their numbers are strengthened when a Sikh who was once in the British army, arrives to lend a hand. He says he heard about the match and would love to be on a team that’s fighting to beat the Brits. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is falling in love with Bhuvan. Gauri is jealous because she loves Bhuvan too and thinks that Bhuvan will be swept away by the English woman. Bhuvan is oblivious to all this, and is focused only on winning the game.

Meanwhile, one of the villagers is plotting Bhuvan’s downfall. He is secretly in love with Gauri and wants Bhuvan to fail so that Gauri will stop loving him. The traitor goes to Captain Russell, betraying the village and Elizabeth. Captain Russell tells the traitor to join the team, and throw the game.

The day of the match arrives and thousands of villagers from neighbouring villages turn out to watch. The British win the coin toss and elect to bat first. Devan, Bhuvan, and two other villagers make up the bowlers on the Indian side. They do passably well, and end up bowling out all the batters… but not before the British side rack up more than 300 runs. By then a day and a half of competition has passed. The Indians have a day and a half to top the Brit’s 300 some run mark. Bhuvan and the Sikh step up first.

They have a good run and rack up 80 runs before the Sikh is caught out. However, when the second day of the match ends, 4 of the 11 Indian side have been retired. This means that most of their most able batters are out. Things look desperate – the Indians still have to make up 200 some runs to free themselves of the taxes and to escape the drudgery of triple tax.

That night, the entire village prays to Krishna, asking for help. Elizabeth is there to, much to Gauri’s chagrin. Elizabeth almost tells Bhuvan that she is in love with him, but ends up saying it out loud in English, which Bhuvan doesn’t understand. Gauri sees them talking together and stomps off in a jealous rage. Once Elizabeth leaves, Bhuvan sees that Gauri is gone. He follows her and tries to figure out what’s wrong. Gauri doesn’t want to tell him. Bhuvan guesses that she’s jealous, and tells her that she shouldn’t be, because he’s always been in love with her, and no one else.

The final day of the match dawns and Bhuvan is still batting. The Indian side make a great run, racking up the score so that they are 8 runs away from topping the Brits. But just then, the Brits retire the Indian’s second to last batsman… this means that Bhuvan will be batting with the last batter in the order: the servant with the deformed arm. Bhuvan knows that he needs to take the brunt of the batting if they are to win… so they try and craft each “over” (i.e. each time the bowler bowls) to have him be the receiving batter. The runs inch up slowly, until they are 5 runs from the British score – which means that Bhuvan needs to hit the ball over the boundary to get a 6 and win. The bowler comes in and Bhuvan lifts the ball into the air. Captain Russell has the ball in his sights and backs up… he keeps backing up and the ball falls into his hand. He screams victory… but no one else on the British side is celebrating. He looks down at his feet… he caught the ball after he crossed the boundary. The Indians win and everyone runs into the field to celebrate.. at the moment, the monsoon arrives, dropping buckets of rain onto the happy villagers.

In the end, Captain Russell is relegated to a british encampment in the African desert for his most capricious bet, Elizabeth returns to England, forever holding Bhuvan in her heart. Bhuvan and Gauri are married… and no one has to pay taxes for three years…


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