May 29, 2002 at 12:00 am

“Fun” might not be the word that you’d expect would best describe a nearly four-hour-long (with intermission) Indian movie whose title translates as “land tax,” and whose final hour features an arduously detailed cricket game. But “fun” is Lagaan’s raison d’être. Shamelessly and expertly manipulative, the film is a Bollywood (as the Indian film industry is called) musical epic with a somewhat lower-than-usual kitsch factor and the kind of triumph-of-the-underdog plot familiar to Western audiences from our own homegrown sports films.

This is plot as ritual, as satisfying as a much-heard song that teases its way toward a familiarly gratifying resolution, an aggressively naive confection full of empty calories. One may groan as yet another setback-and-reversal cliché derails the narrative on the way toward its inevitable climax. But the film’s gigantism (and for some of us, exoticism), combined with its apparent lack of irony, makes these old ploys seem less hackneyed than audacious. It’s weirdly exhilarating to watch a guileless reinvention (or at least recasting) of the wheel, especially at this late date.

As well as being a sports film, Lagaan is a tale of colonial India, told from the point of view of the colonized. The year is 1893, the setting is the obscure Indian village of Champaner. The exploitation of the indigenous poor here by the foreign oppressors is exemplified by the lagaan, a land tax the peasants have to cough up annually to their local chieftain, most of which ends up in British hands. Champaner has been suffering from a drought and a group of locals sets out to petition their leader for a year’s exemption from the tax. A confrontation ensues between one of the more assertive villagers, Bhuvan (the charismatic Indian star Aamir Khan), and the sneering, sadistic British officer, Capt. Russell (played to the hilt by Paul Blackthorne). It leads to the following proposition: If, says Capt. Russell, Bhuvan and a group of villagers can beat him and a group of fellow officers in a game of cricket, the lagaan will be lifted for three years. But if they lose, they have to pay a triple lagaan all at once. Russell is aware that the villagers barely know what cricket is, let alone how to play it, and so, in a parody of fair play, he gives them three months to prepare for the match.

From there it’s just barely a question as to whether the ragtag villagers will beat the supercilious British pigs at their own game. In keeping with the dictates of the Bollywood product, villains and heroes are clearly defined and the whole colonial experience affords no shades of gray. The Brits refer to the Indians as “darkies”; the Indians refer to the Brits as “white devils”; and that’s pretty much the level of interaction (except, of course, at the hypocritical higher end of society). A subplot involving a budding romance between Bhuvan and the white woman who helps him learn cricket does little to ameliorate the hatred between the two groups. His victory will be more than just a matter of winning a bet; it will be a blow against the evils of imperialism. Fair enough, and all part of writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker’s big-brush approach to storytelling.

It’s interesting to note that India apparently has its own version of cultural political correctness. The one sympathetic white is a woman, a member of another historically oppressed group. One of the heroes of the game is a member of the untouchable caste, at first shunned by his teammates, but by the end so appreciatively mauled by them that you fear for his life — keeping in mind that political correctness sometimes just means a sort of enlightened decency.

As for the half-dozen musical numbers, they’re also large-scale, cleverly choreographed and, given the fabulist feel of the film, unintrusive. And finally there’s the long climax of the cricket match. You may never quite get the gist of the game, unless you know it already, but you’ll always know exactly what’s at stake.

It’s a kind of art, this creating of an escapist machine so bloated and yet so nicely paced and filled with so many diverting delights that it can be happily appreciated despite itself. It has an energetic childishness which is very appealing and which soothes on a primal level, like an affront to your more sophisticated instincts that you gladly accept.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].