From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.
Week 10: Lagaan (“The Tax”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Ashutosh Gowarikar
I probably wouldn’t even be writing this User’s Guide to Indian Cinema if it weren’t for Lagaan. Lagaan initiated the era of the “cross-over movie,” Hindi films that are made and marketed for an international audience. Who would have thought that the most recognized Hindi film in the world would be an art movie about cricket? Cultural theorist Ashis Nandy sums it up perfectly, “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.” As irony would have it, the game of the oppressors is embraced and transformed by the oppressed into something new, invigorating and culturally in tune with India’s heritage. Lagaan starts off with a bet. In 1893, a remote village has continually been harassed by the local British authorities who have been extorting tax money on the village’s meager crop. The charismatic youth, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), in a fit of rage, rashly challenges the British to a game of cricket. If the villagers win, they’ll never have to pay the back-breaking taxes. If they lose, they’ll pay double. Unfortunately, none of the villagers know how to play cricket. Enter Lucy (Rachel Shelly), a lovely memsahib who sympathizes with the villagers—and fancies Bhuvan. She teaches the villagers, a veritable dirty dozen of hapless blokes from various religions and castes, the rules and secrets of the game. It’s a lavish period piece and a rousing sports movie. At face value, Lagaan is a typical movie about the Raj: privileged, nasty whites in regimental uniform beating ragged villagers, poor farmers wearily praying for rain so that their crops grow, the whiff of forbidden love between a white and a native. But his gentle direction of his actors, his staging of the musical numbers and the final, pulsating cricket match, a game for survival, is what sets the movie apart as the best of Indian cinema.