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Why not Lagaan

Dr Roy John

After a hiatus of close to 20 years, my interest in Indian movies was recently rekindled by some of its technical advances now reproducible on digital media. Initial observations during this re-entry were disappointing to say the least. Nothing had changed: movies were still being pitched at the intellectual level of a 10 year old, presumably a tried and tested formula with financial rewards that encourage its eternal perpetuation. But recent releases such as Zubeida and Lagaan have proved exhilaratingly refreshing, like phototropic vegetation under the confines of a cemented footpath - beating the odds to defiantly emerge through the cracks.

Ramakrishnan duly acknowledges this feat – “we have come a long way baby” and his point is well taken - is the best of an otherwise mediocre industry ready to compete for excellence on the world stage? Yes, Lagaan’s nomination to the Oscars may have been due to correct politicking, and throwing the “third world” the occasional bone, but there is no denying its entertainment value. Not unlike the other great contender for this year’s Oscars: Moulin Rouge. A fantasy yarn replete with spur of the moment crooning reminiscent of the typical Bollywood fare for the adolescent. Perhaps, it is the year for Hollywood to revel in fantasy, after all the disturbing reality of the recent past. So, I say: why not Lagaan? Let's back it to the bone folks.

Lagaan succeeds exactly because it is an improbable tale told with quality. A movie designed for the masses but with technical and cinematic excellence that makes the discriminating moviegoer sit up and take notice. Set in the days of the British Raj, it takes a peek at the plight of simple-minded villagers callously manipulated by the arrogant British. The “flare nostrilled” imbecilic British General was therefore exactly what the doctor ordered; the ideal catalyst for the underdog to rise up and move in for the kill. Add to this, the familiar love triangle with a twist – the neo-aristocrat pitched against the naïve village belle ups the ante on the underdog theme. For a culture steeped in histrionic extravagance, the restrained emotional performance extracted by the director from Gracy Singh is no mean achievement for an Indian movie.

All this, and a musical score that has to be the fusion masterpiece of the year. The folk track “Radha kaise na jale” scoring an equally exuberant and deftly choreographed folk dance still has me glowing (wonder what it was that made Ram “jala”). With unique percussion rolls heralding cardinal cinematic moments, perfectly pitched trumpet sounds of British entry and a waltz that emulates Bolero, Rahman surely must give Academy favorites like John Williams a run for his money.

Ultimately, this movie is likely to take a back seat at the Oscars succumbing to the French cuteness of “Amelie” or the currently popular war theme of “No Man’s Land”. If this happens, it will not be because the movie doesn’t succeed in its premise but because the serious moviegoer will find it tedious for its lengthy cricket match – a game that has little following in American culture. I cannot but help the thought that with some imaginative editing, Lagaan could have been a more serious contender. Having said that, a movie should be what the director intended it to be and any editing would create a different product. Nevertheless, the likes of Lagaan is a ray of hope for Bollywood. Clearly, it has succeeded in raising my interest just as I was beginning to dismiss the Hindi film industry as the tunnel at the end of the light.

(Dr Roy John, Cardiologist, Film and Media enthusiast, writes from Concord, MA where he lives with his wife and two sons. )

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