Hollywood magic in India
Imitation is the best form of flattery and an Indian film that reminds Hollywood of itself, should be irresistible. AJIT DUARA on `Lagaan's' chances at the Oscars.
Aamir Khan ... The star of the "Lagaan" team.
THE structure of "Lagaan", the skeleton on which the screenplay is pasted, owes its origins to the best of Hollywood. Indeed, the film is a tribute to vintage American melodrama. Once the cultural barriers are removed and the members of the academy sit down to actually watch "Lagaan", there is no way they can miss observing the homage paid, so eloquently and in yet so foreign a tongue.
A classical Hollywood screenplay of the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of good film writing in America, works on one salient principle no matter how small the role, if you introduce a character in a script, you are artistically duty bound to flesh out the person as seriously and with as much attention as you would the protagonist of the film. The idea is that a script is like the canvas of a painter, and just as a painting does not work with inattention to details in the frame, so with film. This obsession with "peripheral" detail is not part of the tradition of Indian melodrama. Amidst the finest poetry and profound humanity of Guru Dutt's films you will find minor characters a greedy relative, a lazy servant that are caricatures of themselves. Johnny Walker's comic roles, though fine as relief, are often not woven into functional parts in the film. In "Pyaasa", his role of a hyperactive masseur is entertainment, but has no connection to the tragic poetry in the development of the Dutt persona and plays a very small part in our understanding of what is possibly the greatest tragedy in Hindi cinema.
But "Lagaan", though made in the operatic tradition of Indian cinema, is different. Its inspirational detailing owes more to the Asterix comic strip than to the Ram Leela. A village in Gaul, under Roman occupation, is part of the Empire and yet free. "Lagaan" begins, as the comic strip does, with a map showing the (British) Empire and the one little village in the Central Provinces. We have our indomitable Gaul, Bhuvan, and gradually we are introduced to the other wonderfully sketched characters the Indian village equivalents of Obelix, Getafix, Cacophonix and all the rest. The only one missing is Dogmatix, and that is because a dog would not be able to play cricket.
Scriptwriter Ashutosh Gowarikar has other special ingredients in his "magic potion". One is the tantalising possibility of an exotic romance. Memsahib Elizabeth is head over heels in love with Bhuvan and the two actually seem emotionally compatible. She seems intellectually on level with Bhuvan and his leadership and management skills. Passionate as she is about her man, Gauri is a bit of a cipher and her obsession with keeping the Memsahib out of the romantic equation seems to take over her world. However, the good casting in the film ensures that we have the members of the Academy who vote at the Oscars, hooked. No one can resist a Radha-Krishna love story with a beautiful Englishwoman as Radha. Also, the tragic Victorian ending to the possible romance we are told that Elizabeth went back to England and, in the quaint phrase of that period, never wed another would be reassuring to the traditionalists in the jury. Attraction between the races is one thing, the cultural consequences of a relationship quite another.
The biggest question mark about an American jury viewing "Lagaan" and rating it above a European film should be placed after the word "cricket". Fortunately or unfortunately, cricket is not baseball and though many of the villagers in the film do play the game like pitchers and hitters (any International Cricket Council (ICC) umpire would call all but one of the bowlers in the "Lagaan" team for "chucking"), one and a half hours of cricket is a bit too much. True, during the drinks, luncheon and innings break there is an entertaining sub-plot about sabotage and betrayal, and exotic visuals of a Maharaja arriving on an elephant, but will the academy voters get the sub-textual references to modern day match-fixing and contemporary party politics?
Let us look at "Lagaan" through the eyes of the most culturally insular of the jury. Here is a movie that looks like something out of Afghanistan, with villagers in headgear and White folk acting as though they own the country (which they probably do). But the guys that look like Afghan fighters are the good guys in the movie and the White soldiers are the bad guys who most certainly are going to get beaten in the end. Yes, the film has this heavy duty patriotism with which the presently flag waving Americans can identify. But the stars and stripes are missing from the flag.
At the same time everyone can recognise the Hollywood tradition of film making being almost exactly duplicated, plus or minus a few songs. The theme of the spirit of man fighting against a system and against seemingly insurmountable odds and triumphing through the simple goodness of their human nature is a symphony that has been played many times in Hollywood and with much success. This and the scale of the production values in "Lagaan", which are of an international class, should put the film on track to win the Oscar. Imitation is the best form of flattery and the idea that a film made in India, with a completely different tradition of film making, reminds Hollywood so much of itself, should be too delightful to resist.
Part of any dramatic tradition, and that tradition includes the timing of an event, is the ceremony of the Oscar night. South Asia has been the core of American television viewing for the past six months and to award the "Best Foreign film Oscar" to a film from India, a land of shared democratic values fighting against terrorism, would be most appropriate. It would have been ideal if a dissident Afghan filmmaker had come up with an Oscar worthy entry, but "Lagaan" will do just fine, thank you. It will make for excellent television on Oscar night.
In a different context, during the 50th year of Indian Independence celebrations, the Booker prize went appropriately to an Indian author. The isolated fictional village in Central India of the 19th Century is now part of the global village. There is not a shadow of a doubt, in my mind at least, that come Oscar night, the makers of "Lagaan" will collect their well-deserved Oscar.
The writer is a film critic based in Mumbai.
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