Sunday, September 30, 2001

in the spotlight: howzzat, bollywood?

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2001).

In what British tabloids are calling the "Summer of Hate" because of violent attacks there on South Asian immigrants, Lagaan -- a Bollywood film about cricket -- has been one of Britain's top-grossing films for 10 weeks running.

The Hindi film is doing for Bollywood what Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did for Chinese cinema. Crossing over. West End theatres screening the film are packed with Asian and non-Asian Britons.

Lagaan, meaning tax, is uniting sports lovers and fans of good old-fashioned narrative and pure entertainment. Defiantly released uncut by actor-producer Aamir Khan, the movie is almost four hours long and includes six of Indian cinema's trademark song-and-dance routines.

Set in 1893 in British India in the fictional Champaner village, Lagaan is an Escape to Victory-like yarn. Peasants impoverished by drought are pitted against their villainous British rulers in a high-stakes cricket match. The peasants must win to avoid paying double tax.

The 75-minute climax, the cricket match, has all the nail-biting tension of a real, modern game. "The cricket really works. Its pace is perfect and it's wonderfully shot," says Shimit Amin, a Los Angeles-based film-maker who's spent time in Bombay's film industry.

"The song and dance has broken through with films like Moulin Rouge, whose director incidentally cited Bollywood as an inspiration," Amin adds.

"It was real good entertainment that celebrated the strength of people's will. It was impossible not to jump up and down when the villagers scored good runs or bowled well," says Harriet Lamb, director of London-based Fairtrade Foundation. She and her two children saw the film without subtitles in Pune, India, and she plans to see it again, with subtitles, in London. "The kids and I were riveted despite the length and only understanding 10 words of Hindi."

Lagaan's period look is authentic thanks to Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood's most successful and more cerebral actors, who's known for his fastidiousness. He was so convinced by the script that he decided to turn producer with Lagaan, which at $3 million has become Bollywood's costliest film ever.