Bollywood scores its first British hit with tale of tax and cricket

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The Independent Culture

For decades the song-filled epics of Bollywood have left mainstream cinema goers unmoved. But the Indian film industry has now cracked the British market with a drama based on the unlikely cinematic pairing of tax and cricket. Lagaan, the latest heroic Hindi yarn to reach these shores from the prolific studios of Bombay, has been packing cinemas nationwide – entering the box office top 10 and winning rave reviews from critics.

Whereas previous Indian hits were slushy romances that drew niche Asian audiences, Lagaan is a period drama that is selling out in such Hollywood lairs as the West End of London.

The film, which lasts three hours 42 minutes and has 15 British actors in a star-studded Indian cast, revolves around a cricket match between British soldiers and a group of villagers in 1893. It tells the tale of a peasant revolt arising from a challenge by a British officer, played by Paul Blackthorne, to beat his garrison at cricket or pay double lagaan – "tax" in Hindi – on their produce.

Filmed in a remote corner of Gujarat with costumes flown in from London, the movie pays minute attention to detail, dedicating an hour to the cricket match.

The result, according to experts, is a film that unites sport lovers with fans of high-brow weepies and has appeal for both Western and Indian audiences.

Cary Rajinder-Sawhney, cultural diversity manager for the British Film Institute, said: "Lagaan is the first commercial Indian film to seek to cross over between the two cultures.

"It is based on a story which would be of interest in Britain but it is also a very mature, confident Indian film which tells the story of the colonial era from an Indian point of view. In many ways it reflects the increasing overlap between India and the West as [India] becomes a more hi-tech and diverse economy. The old perception of Indian film as Hollywood's poor relation is dying."

The film, which was released five weeks ago, has grossed £506,000. The British market for Bollywood films, the biggest outside India, is worth about £15m a year. Reviewers in India and Britain have raved despite the film having a budget of just £3.8m – large by Bollywood standards but a drop in the ocean compared with the special-effects jamborees of Hollywood

Lagaan, which was written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, attempts to portray the good and evil of colonialism. The Indian villagers, who have never played cricket before, are secretly coached by the sister of the officer who issues the challenge.

The sister, played by Rachel Shelley, falls in love with Lagaan's Indian hero, played by the Bombay superstar Aamir Khan, who also makes his production debut.

Distributors said that early reaction to the 29 prints of the film released in Britain would mean further Bollywood films would appear in mainstream cinemas. Richard Storton, brand manager for Odeon, which is showing the film in eight cinemas, including two in the West End, said: "Lagaan has been marketed for mainstream audiences and is doing very well. Traditionally the audience for Bollywood films has been from the Asian community, but that has changed – it is now trendy to see them. We expect to be showing more."