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Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker) 2001
Itís nice to see that after Baz Luhrmannís Bollywood-inspired spectacle Moulin Rouge! soft-toed its way to eight Oscar nominations, that the Academy saw it fit to bestow a Best Foreign Film nomination on Ashutosh Gowarikerís Lagaan, a Bollywood epic that typifies the pros and cons of the films that India churns out. Lagaan surely isnít the best film ever to come out of India, but it certainly stands as one of the more accessible to American audiences. Though the movie is extremely long (about three hours and forty five minutes), the time passes by quickly, since, like in nearly any Bollywood feature, the mood constantly shifts, allowing for comedy, tragedies, and show stopping musical numbers. Itís mindless populist stuff, to be sure, but itís also a lot of fun.
Set in 1893 in a rural farming province in central India, Lagaan tells the story of a group of farmers that play a game of cricket against the British in order to avoid a land tax (Lagaan means land tax). Against the backdrop of the marathon cricket match and the preparations leading up to it, the film serves up numerous instances of Imperialist repression, a love triangle, and the aforementioned musical numbers. The film is an expensive one by Indian standards, even though it only cost a few million dollars, and gorgeous by any standards, with excellent photography that makes the beauty of the arid Indian landscapes apparent. The musical numbers, which pop up every half hour or so, are definite highlights, and, unlike those in Moulin Rouge!, allow us ample time to appreciate their intricate choreography. They donít exactly advance the plot, but since the plot is so simple anyway, theyíre more than welcome.
The problems of most Bollywood productions is that the many pieces fail to come together in a way that makes each of them feel intrinsic. Such excess certainly is a mild problem here too. The British troops are barely allowed to develop into characters at all, especially when compared to the team of Indians. The film takes time to introduce each of the cricket teamís eleven members separately, then makes us bear witness to the contribution of each during the actual game. As a result the filmís climactic cricket game lasts well over an hour. After watching two and a half hours of training, itís a bit much to bear. Itís also odd, that the rules of the game of cricket, a game that I really had no concept outside of the bits Iíve seen such Brit pix as Hope & Glory and The Crying Game, donít become obvious until the filmís final forty five minutes. The filmís more interested in providing sheer audience entertainment though than teaching us anything about cricket or politics. Perhaps, then, itís no great shock that the Academy, always an advocate of entertainment over enlightenment, would choose to nominate Lagaan out of the many Indian films released over the years. It and Moulin Rogue seem to reside in a middle ground between Hollywood and Bollywood conventions, both taking what elements from either that they see fit, and make a pleasing if slightly inconsequential bit of chutney from the pieces.