-By Daniel Eagan

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In 1893, farmers in the impoverished Indian village of Champaner face a double calamity: Drought has withered their crops for a second year in a row, and Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the local ruling British officer, has doubled the lagaan, or tax. Fed up with the British, farmer Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) stands up to Russell, and accepts a cruel bet. If the villagers can beat the British soldiers at a game of cricket, Russell will forgive the lagaan for the next three years. If they lose, the lagaan will be tripled.

The villagers are aghast at Bhuvan's temerity, but as he points out to them, they can't pay the current lagaan anyway. Bhuvan musters a team, at first attracting only misfits and outcasts like Guran (Rajesh Vivek), a fortune teller, and Bagha (Amin Hajee), the mute caretaker of the village's temple. Despite the support of his girlfriend Gauri (Gracy Singh), it's hard for Bhuvan to keep his spirits up.

Then Bhuvan gains a crucial ally. Russell's sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), disturbed by her brother's cruelty, teaches the villagers the intricacies of cricket. As word of her help spreads, more come to join the team. The massive Deva (Pradeep Rawat) was once a British soldier himself. Feuding neighbors Goli (Daya Shankar Pandey) and Bhura (Raghuveer Yadav) put aside their differences to help. Lakha (Yashpal Sharma), jealous of Gauri's love for Bhuvan, spies on the team for Russell. Bhuvan's final choice for the team is a puzzling one. Kachra (Aditya Lakhia) is not only a member of the untouchable caste, but has a crippled arm. But he will play an important part in the game.

The match is spread over three days. The British bat first, building up what looks like an insurmountable lead. Russell, who has angered his superiors with the bet, has a lot riding on the outcome. Elizabeth, who by now has fallen in love with Bhuvan, does as well. But the villagers' very lives depend on beating the British at their own game.

Lagaan unfolds at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time devoted to broad comedy and chaste romance. The film includes a half dozen expansively choreographed songs, the best among them a sort of rain dance that careens through the dusty village. The harsh landscapes, period architecture, and thousands of extras all contribute to the film's epic scope.

Still, Lagaan may not be the best introduction to Bollywood films. The action here is unusually tame, the characters are too simplistic to maintain interest, and the plot offers few surprises. Even cricket aficionados will be disappointed in what turns out to be a very long but conventional movie.

--Daniel Eagan

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