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Why Lagaan ? An interesting point of view from a lokvani guest writer.


Why we should not settle for Lagaan
This is the time of year I always look forward to as a movie buff. Oscar awards show will be upon us shortly. Usually quality movies are released three to four months before the award ceremony to qualify as previous year releases, but still recent enough to be fresh in the minds of the selection committee members.

This year, there is a special twist – an added anticipation. An Indian movie `Lagaan’ has been nominated in the best foreign film category. As many of you may know, India has the distinction as the world’s largest producer of movies and considering the fact that very little of our movies enjoy international acclaim, that is a dubious distinction.

Hence, a nomination for an Indian movie should be a cause for celebration – a moment of vindication, a moment to congratulate ourselves and to say we have arrived. Or is it? An ultra long movie that features numerous songs, dances and a cricket match that runs over an hour long, being nominated as the best product from India? Why this movie? Does it compare with other foreign movies that won international acclaim and Oscars- such as `Life is Beautiful’ , `Like Water for Chocolate’, to name two? Is it the best India has to offer?

To be sure, Lagaan has a lot going for it. In addition to attention to details and generally good casting, how can you not root for an underdog facing long odds against a superior opponent in a pivotal struggle, a la the movie Rocky. The fact that the opponent is British makes it deliciously patriotic for Indians, still presumably not cured of postcolonial hang over. The problem with Lagaan is that the movie does not know whether to be a mass entertainment film or a serious film. This is not the first time an Indian moviemaker faced this dilemma. The typical producer solves this dilemma almost always by saying `I want to be both’ and ends up being neither.

Amir Khan as the producer has done a good job of capturing the mood of the period with attention to details. So, why do the songs sound so modern? Even more important, Dare I ask the question- why any songs at all? I refuse to accept the age-old excuse that we need songs to keep the mass audience happy. Ultimately, the thing that killed me was the basic premise on which an entire movie is based. An English colonel triples the tax burden of the village because the king offends him by refusing to eat meat! Are you serious? Am I the only one who thinks that it is absurd to base the entire (3+ hours long) movie on that preposterous premise? The English actor plays the evil villain in the grand Bollywood tradition with arched eyebrows and flared nostrils, to make matters worse.

I can not help thinking that the nomination of Lagaan has something to do with the politically correct environment today that seems to treat anything from the east as something special. It also has something to do with the increased political muscle India and Indians seem to enjoy worldwide. Far more deserving movies form the past (The brilliant `Mirch Masala’ and the underrated `Bhaji on the beach’, not to mention some of Ray’s and Benegal’s movies) were not nominated.

The point is not to poke fun of Lagaan, which is easy to do, but pointless. The point is to challenge ourselves with the question – Are we happy with a movie such as Lagaan representing India in the world stage? More importantly, do we in fact think that we are on par with the best of the world movie wise. I hope that for our own sake, the answer to the second question is a No. Like the cigarette ad that says `you have come a long way baby’, we have come far, but still have a long way to go.

About the writer
Ram Ramakrishnan lives in Northboro, MA with wife, Lalitha and two daughters. Recently, wrote and directed two full length tamil comedy plays in MA. Movies are his passion and he does not buy the argument that Indian movies need songs to be entertaining.

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