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The Ascendance of Aamir
There's talk, everywhere, about the tenth anniversary of Lagaan, a film whose success, as seen from today, seemed predestined - our two biggest obsessions, cricket and cinema, in one patriotic package; how could it miss? - but whose prospects, in 2001, were uncertain to say the least. Till the film hit screens and our jaws dropped with shock that this was what was being attempted, no one knew anything about it. We did not yet have pervasive entertainment coverage by the national media then - or to be more precise, pervasive Bollywood coverage; ten years on, the national media continues to be unaware that there are thriving film industries outside Bollywood - and there were no breaking-news reports about how this foreign actor had been flown down or how that sand-soaked location had been scoped out. No one seemed especially interested in what a director named Ashutosh Gowariker was up to after Pehla Nasha and Baazi.
Perhaps the problem was also that this was an Aamir Khan movie, and the media was busy heralding the superstardom of Shah Rukh Khan, who was the blue-eyed boy of the Yash Raj faction, having delivered hits in the form of Dil To Paagal Hai (1997) and Mohabbatein (2000), and who had also overseen the emergence of Karan Johar, a force closely allied with Yash Raj, with a blockbuster named Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998. Aamir, on the other hand, had just come off the widely reviled Mela, and his last blockbuster was Raja Hindustani in 1996, which was one of those films people went in droves to watch and forgot all about a day later. The films afterwards - Ishq, Ghulam, Sarfarosh, Mann - had met with varying degrees of success, and the actor's position appeared to be that of someone who was liked and thought of as a good performer but lacking that certain something that made Shah Rukh Khan such a star.
Then Lagaan came and made unexpected truckloads of money and critics loved it and audiences loved it and, in a pinch-me-I'mdreaming scenario, it wound up amongst the five nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Suddenly, the media could not get enough of Aamir Khan, and the actor used this attention to pull off what is possibly the most startling change of image in the history of Hindi cinema. Before Lagaan, he was just an actor with ordinary instincts, playing up his youngish romantic persona (Afsana Pyaar Ka, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander) and betting on big-name directors (Yash Chopra in Parampara, Mahesh Bhatt in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke and Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, Indra Kumar in Ishq). It was, in short, a successful (if not especially remarkable) career that would have lasted ten more years until younger heroes with younger-looking faces arrived and the big-name directors started looking towards them.
But something made Aamir single out, for his 2001 slate, an attempt at a Hollywood-style epic by Ashutosh Gowariker, a filmmaker still struggling to make a name for himself, and a very un-Hindi-film-like Hindi film by Farhan Akhtar, a filmmaker who'd never ever made a film. It's a gamble that's catapulted him to the top, to an envious position where he's now regarded as not only a stupendous box-office draw but also a steady guarantor of quality mainstream cinema. That's the true legacy of Lagaan, ten years on, not the film itself (which I guess is still fine, though I haven't found myself drawn to watch it in a long time) but how it redefined the ambitions of an actor. As for Dil Chahta Hai, it ended up redefining Hindi cinema. (I'd also think it has lasted better and that its influence is more readily visible around us today.) It's not surprising that, after this annus mirabilis, Aamir took entire years off, resurfacing only in 2005, in Mangal Pandey: The Rising. He could have retired and still found a place in the pantheon.
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