It was "Lagaan" all the way
So what if the Oscar eluded it, `Lagaan''s rich harvest at home has made everyone happy, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN, as she sums up the results of the recent 49th national film awards.
THERE MAY be strong disagreements over many decisions in the 49th annual national film awards, but one thing is clear. Practically everyone is happy with the rain of honours on "Lagaan" eight awards, starting with the best popular film providing wholesome entertainment to best audiography, art direction, costumes, music direction, lyrics and choreography. "We know what's what even if the Oscar guys don't," we say, (quite forgetting that in the foreign film category the Oscar goes in for auteurship rather than market drive).
We also recall how "Lagaan" combined every ingredient of mainstream masala with aesthetics. Instead of ritzy designer labels it outfitted a whole company, including the star protagonist, in asli desi yokel attire. The colours were earthy and organic, no tinsel garishness in its period look. The ensemble acting, with its nuances, was superb. The music carried some of the enduring charm of old gold, and the group choreography, particularly of the dances, proved that good taste can triumph over vulgarity.
And yet it was Bollywood pure and simple. "A punch of cricket, patriotism and romance,'' laughed the critic. The difference was that instead of escapism the fantasy kindled positive thinking. Why else would business experts take their students and staff to see the fairy tale? They saw it as the exemplification of group management, the maximal realisation of human potential, delegation of responsibility, and the success of planning strategies. For the young it was a rite of passage, for adults it was a reminder of the security that goes with community bonding. Here was a film where the hero did not achieve everything single-handed. He relied on everyone to do his/her part in the cause but had the leadership qualities to inspire each one to do better than his best.
In sum it may not be an exaggeration to say that in its own way, "Lagaan" renewed the nation's hope and faith in itself. It made us nostalgic for lost innocence identified with village life in the past. It utilised our national obsession for cricket and reminded us of team-spirit, sportsmanship and the do-or-die valour of the genuine player in the game or in life.
That is why, unlike many other chart toppers forgotten before the investors raked in all the moolah, "Lagaan" will be remembered for its surprising blend of idealism and shoulder shrugging acceptance of harsh reality.
No quarrels either with the choice of Udit Narayan for best male playback singer. His songs in "Lagaan" and "Dil Chahta Hai" were reminiscent of scores in the past when haunting melody triumphed over catatonic rhythms. The South could pat itself on the back for hogging the honours in several categories with Murali as Best Actor ("Neythukaran") and Hyderabadi Tabu adjudged Best Actress in "Chandni Bar" along with Chennai dweller Shobana in "Mitr - My Friend". Though both films wished to reach out without pandering merely to box office demands, they failed to fulfil their promise. "Chandni Bar" could not refract the power and realism of Mira Nair's brilliant earlier documentary, "Indian Cabaret," though it did much with lighting and good casting (remember Atul Kulkarni as the gangster?) Director Madhur Bhandarkar did however manage to give the film a distinct feel of its own, quite different from run-of-the-mill Bollywood depictions of bars and pimps, gals and gangs. Tabu's own performance was good as always, rather than stunning.
"Mitr...'' was a film that stood out for its naturalness with the characters speaking Hindi, English and Tamil, as they would in real life. The actor turned director Revathy had a great subject in her nuclear NRI family with cracks and confusions in the relationships between husband and wife, daughter and parents. However, she allowed it to drift into a feel good exercise. Loneliness and alienation from her loved ones force the wife to change, to try to find her own identity. The process threw up fine moments and convincing sequences, but there was little layering in script and characterisation to bring depth to the portrayal. In its second half the film became so predictable that Shobana could display none of the complexity and craft she had brought to her role in "Manichitrathazhu" (Malayalam) with which she bagged her first best actress award in 1993.
B. Lenin has a clear point of view and never ducks issues. Useful attributes for raising disturbing questions as he does in the Tamil film "Oorukku Nooru Paer" (Best Direction). Capital punishment is the subject of debate, a tricky coil of emotional and moral strands. Based on Jayakanthan's novella of the same name, with wildlife expert Alphonse Roy wielding the camera, it neither drew great performances nor maintained balance in relating its main and sub plots. However, the award is an acknowledgement of Lenin's sustained efforts in promoting the Other cinema with unrelenting commitment.
Veteran K.N.T. Sastry, who has won national awards earlier for Best Film Critic and Best Book on Cinema, has proved that a critic can succeed in creative endeavours too. The Indira Gandhi award for best directorial debut goes to him for "Tiladaanam" (Telugu). The disintegration of the orthodox brahmin family as a metaphor for socio-political change has been a favourite with parallel cinema. Here too Vedic scholar Subbiah Sastri is reduced to performing lowly rites for survival. With a terrorist son and social rebel daughter-in-law, he performs rites to ward off the evil that he believes is generated by his ill-fated grandchild but the misfortunes cannot be switched off. In this linear narrative with its share of the maudlin, the old world crumbles to yield a new one, also riddled with incertitude.
Janaki Visvanathan gets the Special Jury Award for "Kutty" (Tamil), with the best child artiste award going to Shwetha in the same film. In this stark, bleak and convincing portrayal Shwetha avoids that cuteness and precocity we found in some of her other features. Visvanathan opting for simplicity in dealing with the complex issue of child labour pays off, especially as she avoids trivialisation. The other characters in the child's life are sketched with some care. We end up knowing just why atrocities on the child pass off unnoticed, or even as normal behaviour. In a welcome move to preserve standards no awards were announced in several feature and non-feature categories. Among those that made it to the list, "Dany" (Malayalam) stands out for its offbeat treatment of the "biography" of an orphaned waif Daniel Thompson.
The script relates every tragic happening in Dany's life to major national events, underscoring the fact that an individual's history is no less important than the collective history of the race and community. His wailing saxophone is a Blues metaphor for the neglected and forgotten people.
Though director T. V. Chandran succeeds in his avowed intention of making us forget Mammootty's star status to focus on the character he plays, the edge is blunted by a pace that seems a tad too slow for the mood he wishes to evoke, and a style too ponderous for the light touches. However, "Dany" scores in Mallika Sarabhai's unfussy performance and in its spicy unpredictability. But it is unable to maintain its black humour, sliding all too easily into patches of stolid melodrama.
Unlike the mainly progressive themes of serious Marathi cinema "Chaitra" (best short fiction film, best music direction by Bhaskar Chandavarkar and special mention for Sonali Kulkarni's performance) succeeds in kindling mere nostalgia for time past. Based on a beloved writer's (G. A. Kulkarni) short story, the film is more bitter than biting. The note at the end is one of regression, as the widow is unable to face the world. Cosmetic concerns predominate, giving a rich, lush feel to a village in Maharashtra in the early twentieth century.
The subjects of the awardees in the non fiction category such as "Sonal" in Hindi and English, "The Diary of a Housewife" in Malayalam, "The Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh" in English, and the profile of the great folk artiste "Teejan Bai'' sound promising. As always, such films remain inaccessible to the general public, with whatever screenings they get on television or film festivals going unnoticed in the present system of distribution and exhibition.
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