A.R. Rahman

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

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Lagaan was one of the most internationally successful films produced by India's Bollywood industry, and also the first to be nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. But its popularity was due less to originality than to director Ashutosh Gowariker's skillful manipulation of several familiar screenplay formulas. In addition to being a crowd-pleasing musical, Lagaan is also a historical epic, a romantic drama, and a ragtag-underdog-sports-team-comes-from-behind-and-wins movie. It's as if Gowariker tried to cram three movies -- Gandhi, Gigi, and Cool Runnings -- into one massive omni-film. The result is a four-hour musical with only six songs, amounting to only 30 minutes of music. So the soundtrack actually seems a little skimpy in contrast to the sprawling movie, but nevertheless serves as a great souvenir of Lagaan's grand and silly charms. Composer A.R. Rahman blends traditional folk instrumentation (including sarangi, mohana veena, and santoor) with modern pop sensibilities, creating an engaging and textured sound that reflects the expansive sweep of the film. And though it may seem odd to see 19th century Indian villagers dancing to synthesizers and bass guitar, this can't really be any harder to accept than 19th century Indian villagers breaking simultaneously into spontaneous song. On "O Rey Chhori" Rahman adds cross-cultural fusion to the mix, alternating between a gooey Indian pop ballad and a swoony Western orchestral waltz to convey the romantic triangle between Indian village girl Gracy Singh and Victorian lady Rachel Shelley. Lyricist Javed Akhtar seems less comfortable writing in English than in Hindi, but Rahman's enthusiasm is -- as always -- too infectious to resist.

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