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April 2002


Letter from U.S.A.



Whose Lagaan is it anyway? 


By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay






The hype about Lagaan in the run-up to the Oscars was just an eye-opener on the make-belief world that the cloistered Indian glitterati revels in, says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

With Bhuvan's XI finding the winning run elusive, Team Lagaan will not exactly return to a hero's welcome. For a film that was as much about cricket, as concerning a fictional chapter in nascent Indian nationalism, the events in Los Angeles evoked a painful feeling of déjà vu for a nation that was made to believe that here was the finest Indian film ever made. For generations, the lack of "killer instinct" in the sporting arena has been one of the major talking points while discussing the failures of Indian sports. In recent years, it needed the minnows from Zimbabwe to establish that the Indian cricket team did not always "choke", after all. For those who were hopeful of Lagaan bagging the coveted trophy, it has been a case of a familiar story once again. Billed by Bollywood bigwigs and sections of the media as a "sure winner", Aamir Khan has only flattered to deceive and has - to use a common cricketing phrase - snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.


Predictably, members of Team Lagaan used analogies from the playing arena to get over the bitter feeling of defeat. Arguments ran thus: "After all even Sachin Tendulkar gets caught in the deep while trying to give the final push. This does not mean that he is not a great player." But in ways more than one, the collective urban angst at not bagging the Oscar had more to do with the hype surrounding the nomination of the film and less with the failure per se. It is not just that the crew of Lagaan has been disappointed. But, the sentiment has been widespread among Indians who had been following the travails of the films in the media. With the likes of Parmeshwar Godrej lending more than a helping hand, the feeling had gained ground that Lagaan winning the Oscar was a certainty. Being confident does not mean one has to be brazen and this is one count on which Lagaan publicists can be faulted. Expectations were raised to a feverish pitch and national pride equated with Lagaan winning the Oscar.


After all, this was not the first Indian film to have been nominated for the Oscars. While the episode surrounding Mother India falling at the final round can be dismissed as being from a time when few Indians had heard of the Academy Awards, Salaam Bombay came in the thick of the growing yearning among urban Indians of acquiring a foreign certification for something that was completely Indian. But Mira Nair's film had fewer pre-awards' night write-ups in Indian papers (we did not have much of TV at that time). The film also did not have the kind of support from Bollywood that Lagaan had. This was probably because the filmmaker was not a "homegrown" product of the industry and also because the theme of the film was a trifle unnerving for denizens of the city. After all, Nair's heroes were the very people that had little space in the scripts that the Dream Merchants churned out year after year.


There are two aspects to Team Lagaan's tryst with failure: the film per se and the larger issues concerned with its bid for the Oscars. While putting on record that I do not have a position against popular Indian cinema, I have a confession to make: despite having read the most damning review that the film was "about a cricket match whose result all knew", I made two attempts to watch Lagaan. Both went in vain and I could not reach the stage where Aamir Khan makes the final 20 runs in three overs to win the match for Bhuvan's XI. In terms of theme, Lagaan had nothing new: it was about common people led by a strong individual who inspired his group to stand their ground against oppression. There is nothing new in this story line and films like Naya Daur and Sholay left little that could be taken forward. Where Lagaan could have scored was technical virtuosity, simplicity and precision. But while it scored on the first two counts, the filmmakers often got confused over what kind of film they were trying to make.


I have seen and reviewed enough films to claim in all fairness that Lagaan was a trifle simplistic in its treatment of the main colonial drama and grossly melodramatic in its portrayal of cricket in the nineteenth century. In terms of details, Lagaan continued with the distortions of various Indian dialects like most Hindi films and both the director and the editor were clearly conservative when it came to clipping sequences. But for the moment, the debate on the aesthetic qualities of Lagaan is not of importance when compared to the manner in which the build up to the Oscars was managed.


What would have happened if the umpires had given Team Lagaan the benefit of doubt? One shudders at the thought but it is likely that the hype would have been akin to 1994 when it was sought to be rammed down our throat that Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai had been the most beautiful women to have emerged out of the Indian womb. True the damsels in questions are owners of very proud bodies. But, to say that no one of such perfection had walked the Indian ramps prior to them would be a travesty of justice.


The global beauty industry needed icons in the early 1990s and they found able partners in a section of Indian business and media in the quest to push the sales of "fairness creams" to new heights. It was all thus very convenient: you market cosmetics and other accessories of the fashion industry while declare undying concern for the poverty-stricken populace of the nation. The trend has become so fashionable now that even male contestants in Mr India shows now say that they want to queue up behind Mother Teresa on the way to heaven. If that was hypocrisy at its starkest then equating Lagaan with the best that Indian cinema has to offer is the latest instance of a nation that is increasingly looking up at pygmies to become national icons.


If we try to identify the majority of people behind Lagaan's bid at the Oscars one finds that the list comprises the same "happening people" from a particular social class who made the Indian beauty contestants into celebrities. The people who once lobbied at the Miss Universe and Miss World contests held in exotic locales were the ones who once again put their best foot forward at Los Angeles. That a large section of the media trumpeted the claims of these "happening people" only indicates that the old "projects" are becoming stale and new "concerns" have to be identified.


This year it was the turn of Lagaan, next year it might be the latest designer on the ramp and the third year we could be in for something completely unexpected. The only conditions that would apply for being promoted such is that there should be a touch of Indianness, a market-friendly attitude and be open to manoeuver. This is all part of the make believe world that the cloistered few would like to revel in. Oscars, beauty pageants and fashion shows are of greater relevance. Real issues that affect the nation are not of primary concern because lagaan - the hardships, affects not these handful of Indians


This was first published in March 26, 2002  edition of