Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lagaan Week -- Crossover

Sita-Ji from Bollywood Food Club tipped me off to The Bollywood Fan's Lagaan Week. Shell's Bollyworld has a great post, Everything I know about cricket I learned from Lagaan.for those in the new world who find the game incomprehensible.

I have been thinking about this movie a lot in terms of "crossover." While it wasn't the kind of blockbuster hit we think of now when we talk about Bollywood crossing over, this was the first genuine Indian movie to break through the barrier.

Here's what the New York Times said about Lagaan back in 2002:

"The musical ''Lagaan,'' however, has leapt over the usual boundaries. It became a genuine popular success in London last year, crossing over to a general audience, and now it is reopening in New York, after having played the Indian neighborhoods last summer, and opening in Los Angeles....Coming on the heels of Baz Luhrman's heavily Bollywood-influenced ''Moulin Rouge,'' ''Lagaan'' seems to confirm the globalization of the genre -- a mixed blessing, as always. But as the makers of ''Lagaan'' well know, there's an irresistible pleasure in rooting for the underdog. If a bunch of impoverished farmers can humiliate the British Empire, why can't an Indian film do the same to Hollywood?"

Now considered a classic, it did good business abroad. It didn't rock the box office like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or even Monsoon Wedding but then, it didn't really try to crossover. Three-and-a-half hours long, in Hindi mainly and about, among other things, cricket, it had everything against as far as crossover potential goes. Yet, it moved beyond the NRI cinemas to the mainstream theaters and found a whole new audience for Bollywood, making around $3.5 million by some estimates in the US and UK (not counting rental revenue). Box Office Mojo has more conservative figures.

The story is one almost everyone loves: David vs. Goliath, the underdog villagers up against the colonial masters. When the poor villagers, who are desperately waiting for the monsoon rain, are unable to pay the crippling Lagaan (land tax), the local British overlord agrees to give them a reprieve if they can beat the British in a game of cricket.

This is one of the things that deters people from seeing the film in America, as there are very few non-Indian cricket fans in the U.S. The movie handles this with seamless exposition, by having the English lady character, Elizabeth, explain the rules to the villagers who at that time were as unfamiliar with it as your average Yank. No reason to be afraid of the cricket, Americans, Believe me, by the end you will be standing, cheering for the Indian villagers to win.

Director Ashutosh Gowariker shows his way with sweeping historical epics in Lagaan, and all the performances are great, but it's Aamir Khan's sparkling intensity that makes this film really shine. The film's success echoes the plot in many ways. An underdog film in the West, it went on to overcome its inherent obstacles to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category, and all India stood and cheered for it when the Academy Awards rolled around. It didn't win the statuette unfortunately, but it did break down the doors for Bollywood abroad. Had its makers mounted a big media blitz, it might well have taken the Oscar and the box office.

Netflix listing for Lagaan here.