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February 22, 2002

Bollywood's Lagaan and the Oscars

• Warum ich so weise bin •

• Warum ich so klug bin •

• Warum ich so gute Bücher schreibe •

• Warum ich ein Schicksal bin •

My esteemed colleagues elsewhere in this august journal have already made passing comments about this year's Oscar showdown for best foreign language film. They seem to share the same mind as I, that is, that Lagaan is, if not the best movie ever made, at least most ready to mine for Oscar gold. In this case, however, there stands a formidable opponent, namely Amélie. In the course of this essay qua article, I hope to demonstrate that Amélie is in no shape whatsoever to even threaten the Oscar onslaught Lagaan prepares to unleash.

It seems as though the Academy fears Indian movies. Only three have ever been nominated for Oscars (the other two being Salaam, Bombay! and Mother India). France, on the other hand, just for the sake of example, has won three times as many Oscars as India has had films nominated. And this does not even include the 1995 donkeypunching suffered by cinéastes the world around when Red was disqualified from being entered in the foreign language category (even though it would have been Switzerland's representative, it was still a movie in French, you know, the language spoken in most of France. But, then, if the Oscar is for best foreign language film, then why bother attaching movies to nations and not just languages?). But do not take my grousing ("France has won enough Oscars. They've fed from the trough enough times") as emblematic of a certain Francophobia.

Truth is, I have a really grotesque case of Francophilia. If it's in French, I want it. I kept all the soda pop containers from a trip to Montréal when I was in grade school because they were bilingual. I'd write this article in French if I didn't think the copy editors would not mess it up. I use double negatives instinctively. I always root for the French candidate in the Oscars because I appreciate what French cinema has done for us over the years. But this one time, this one tiny time, France has to take a backseat. The only other times I can remember pushing the good ol' .fr out of the way was during the second round game against Paraguay in 1998 when France advanced on a cheap-ass golden goal and during the final, when an allegedly "superior" French team somehow managed to defeat a demoralized Brazilian squad (having sold out to Nike already), looking to a convulsing 21-year-old working off a series of seizures suffered the morning of the game for striking dominance against that raging asshole of a prick Fabian Barthez. Like the world needed Zidane, already king of the world after leading Juventus to the top of the Serie A earlier in the year, hoisting the World Cup also?

In any case, I digress. Back to Amélie. Is casting an absurdly cute (as in, to the level of living anime) lead all it takes to get a foreign language nomination these days? Just because Jean-Pierre Jeunet's three most recent films (Alien: Resurrection, La Cité des enfants perdus, and Delicatessen) were grotesque and weird, now that he makes a charming, cute, energetic little movie, he gets to shoot into first place for the statuette? I don't buy it. I don't buy any of it. France can win this Oscar (if they will) and go home to realize that, on March 24, justice was not served.

I'm still not done with the soccer, though. Didier Deschamps is now on the record saying that the les Bleus, without his leadership (he has retired), will repeat as World Cup champions. You heard it here first, kids: This Will Not Happen. France has been overrated as a side for four years, despite their winning the UEFA European Championship. They are vying with Argentina now as the Yankees of soccer, at least from my perspective. Could this upcoming Cup be more depressing? All three favored teams (Argentina, Italy, and France) can make claims to being the Yankees of International Soccer, which only means that it is up to England to literally bloody Argentina in the first round of action. Revenge, the kind with blood, should be demanded by Sven-Goran Eriksson from his English side. No matter where I am, I am watching the England-Argentina match on 7 June live. Italy I'm not so much worried about. But Argentina

It is fitting that the bulk of my hatred for France is tied into sports, since sports plays a big role in Lagaan, and is part of why the movie is so fantastic. To give a brief synopsis: The tiny village of Champaner has had a drought for two years, and no rain has fallen at all this year. Going to plead for amnesty from taxation, they interrupt the British soldiers in the middle of a cricket game. Bhuvan, already on Captain Russell's bad side, mocks the game. Russell denies the request, but challenges Champaner to a bet. If they beat the British soldiers in a cricket match, the tax (lagaan) will be waived for three years. But should the English win, then the village (and all the surrounding villages) will have to pay triple tax. Bhuvan takes the bet. The village turns on him, and, at first, his side is made up of just himself, the local soothsayer, Guran, the seemingly mute Bagha, and young Tipu. Bhuvan is helped in learning the 42 Laws of Cricket by Elizabeth, Captain Russell's sister, who is working under some serious colonial-carnal forces. Eventually, Bhuvan assembles his 11, which include a Muslim, a Sikh, and an untouchable (who is a brutal, and I mean brutal leg-spinner), and enough anti-British hatred to lead them toward amnesty.

Since this is a movie, there has to be a love story (even Victory, in which British officers and infantrymen play their Nazi jailers in a soccer match manages to squeeze in a love angle involving Sylvester Stallone). Here, Gauri is in love with Bhuvan, who is playing coy. At the same time, Lakha loves Gauri, stooping to joining the cricket team so that he can throw the game and bring Bhuvan shame. Elizabeth also loves Bhuvan. This all comes to a head right before the movie's intermission, when Bhuvan and Gauri enact the story of Krishna and Radha in the song-and-dance number "Radha Kaise Na Jale."

So this is all build-up for the first 150 minutes, leading up to the hour-plus long climax, the cricket match. Now, I've watched a lot of sports movies in my day (and, yes, I'm including both The Big Lebowski and Bring It On in that category), and no movie I have seen, and this includes the stirring conclusion to Victory, manages to work its way to the forgone conclusion (the villagers beat the British just as rainclouds burst) with such tension and suspense. The Brits win the toss and start making easy work of the local bowlers, including the leg-spinner Kachra (new ball, you see?). After the first day's play, the Brits are at something like 263 for 3. The next day, Kachra comes in and tallies a hat-trick (bowled, edged to slip, and stumped). Throw in a few clutch catches, and the Brits end their innings at 322, having "collapsed like a house of cards."

Bhuvan and Deva open the batting for the Champaner residents and bat respectably. Deva, however, gets out on a fluke play, bringing up the rest of the big bats, who quickly stumble from rookie mistakes. The men end the second day's play with only the rabbits and ferrets remaining. Yet on the second day, the injured Ismayeel returns, with Tipu running for him. Bhuvan and he form a sparkling partnership, with Bhuvan completing a century. Ismayeel, though, gets stumped just past breaking 50. The day progresses, and the villagers, down to their final over, have Kachra, who literally only has one hand with which to bat, on strike, with a ten-run target. Kachra manages a single, followed by a boundary by Bhuvan. On the third ball, though, the villagers are held to a single, and Kachra has three balls with which to score four runs. He blocks two balls and then is no-balled on the final ball. Now, for some reason, Bhuvan is on strike and lofts a ball right into Captain Russell's hands. When the camera pulls away, though, it becomes clear that Russell caught the ball beyond the boundary. Six! The villagers win! No more lagaan!

The village is showered with rain, Bhuvan and Gauri plan for marriage, and the arrogantly evil (and remarkably evil — he shoots a cute bunny rabbit just for fun) Captain Russell is humiliated and transferred to central Africa. No wonder there is celebration. Gripping cinema, expansive camerawork, vibrant colors, comic relief, class- and race-conflict, double love triangles, catchy songs, and tight choreography spell Oscar success — or should. Maybe not this time around, though. Those bedamned French. Or other nominees, the Norwegians, Bosnians, and Argentines. Yeah, I already said a bit about the Argentines, but perhaps a bit more is in order. Three words: Hand of God. England, I'm looking for blood. Blood. Redder than the red cards you may end up receiving.

In any case, Lagaan has rocketed up to be one of the best sports movies of all time, brushing shoulders in the dugout with The Natural, Victory, and Caddyshack. And, though it may seem inaccessible (four hours long, in Hindi, about cricket, with songs), all complaints crumble once the movie begins. I've screened this thing to lots of people, and each person is sucked in and their productivity drowns — it's a beautiful sight, honestly. The length of the movie is tied to the dance numbers (which are all truly enjoyable) and the cricket match, which is tangled in tension, so the hours melt away. Cricket is explained enough so that a novice can at least catch on to the basics of the match (sadly, LBW is never explained, yet plays a key role twice). And if a person in this day and age has problems with movies in non-English languages, well

A friend asks when an angry group of young boys will cut the Public Enemy update "Burn, Bollywood, Burn." As long as it keeps generating movies like Lagaan, then hopefully the answer will be never.

Ministry of Defense

Lagaan: Smells an Oscar.