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A Musical About Tax Resistance?!

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06/16/2004

New on the Film Page:

Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

A musical about tax resistance?! Why not! Rothbard once wrote, "...I am notoriously hostile to films that are (a) slow, (b) dark and murky, (c) with long close-ups of suffering actors' faces substituting for dialogue, and (d) in a foreign language. Indeed these four elements almost always go together."

This film is, I admit, in a foreign language. But it is neither slow, dark and murky nor lacking in witty dialogue. Perhaps this is because it is not a product of the pretentious and usually depressed European art house cinema, but of the entrepreneurial and vibrant Bollywood, the Indian film industry that is second only to Hollywood in size.

One of the pleasures of Bollywood films for fans of classic American film is that, like in that classic era, Bollywood still considers the musical film an acceptable, even preferred medium. So when it came time to tell the story of a village resisting taxes in the 19th century they produced a joyful and fun musical rather than a didactic screed.

Poor villagers are made to pay a tax, the Lagaan, to the Raja which actually goes to the occupying British. When an argument breaks out among the villagers about whether they are being oppressed by the native Raja or the foreign occupiers, an insightful villager points out, "Whether we put it into the right hand or the left, it's we who pay, Chief!"

The hero of the tale asks the central question of the film: "I feel rage in my heart when I pay Lagaan to the Raja... And he gives it to those Whiteys with their dirty grasping hands... Who ploughs this earth to sow the seeds? We do. Who waters it? We do. Why should we fill their coffers with our produce?"

Courtesy of an arrogant British officer, the villagers are faced with a challenge: Beat the British in cricket and pay no Lagaan for three years, lose and the entire province will pay triple. This is a joyful, beautifully photographed film that serves as a great, libertarian introduction to Bollywood. In Hindi and English with subtitles.

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