A Cool Flick

Friday, August 19, 2005

A Cool Flick

I just finished seeing a movie I've been wanting to see for years: Lagaan. I recommend it highly.

It's a Bollywood-esque movie, but conoisseurs of the genre confirm that it's not really typical Bollywood. The budget was the highest in Indian history, for one thing, and it's largely in a local dialect called Bhojpuri rather than Hindi (a big risk for the producers, given the huge Hindi-speaking audience in India). But like a more usual Bollywood film, it's long (almost four hours), and there are several song-and-dance numbers. I'd recommend seeing it in a theater or on a large screen with good sound, because it is a spectacle, with lots of big crowd scenes and such.

The story is pretty simple. It's set in the late 19th century. The evil captain of the local British garrison threatens to double the province's taxes (paid in kind in grain), even though the region is in the grip of a terrible drought. Then some villagers see the Englishmen playing cricket and wonder what it is. The captain challenges the most strong-spirited of the villagers to a cricket match: if the villagers win, the whole province is freed from taxes for three years; if the Brits win, the village has to pay triple taxes (which they cannot possibly do, since they really won't have enough grain to pay even the normal amount and still feed themselves).

You can probably guess how it ends. But it's a terrific journey.

The nature of the film is probably best captured by the fact that I watched it with Dutch subtitles. My Dutch is getting better all the time, but if this was a film that required any subtlety from the viewer, it would have been hopeless.* This is a story with very clear distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys. The English resort to all kinds of trickery and violence to win, for example; meanwhile, the hero unites the village by first letting Muslims join the team, then by taking a Sikh, and last by bringing in an Untouchable as a spin bowler (everyone stalks off the field, but after one short speech about equality from our hero, the whole village immediately sees the error of its ways and welcomes the Untouchable--did I mention he is also seriously handicapped, with a withered arm--bringing tears to the poor man's eyes). The hero and heroine, who have a properly chaste Bollywood love affair and get married off-screen after the movie's end, confirm the prevailing aesthetic in which fairer skin is better, but there's no denying that they are both strikingly good-looking.

Even the Christian Spotlight on Entertainment gives it a moral rating of "better than average"--and, more to the point, a moviemaking quality rating of 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. And these are people who think Harry Potter promotes evil witchcraft. Not bad for a film where the good guys (with one exception) are Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and the bad guys (with no exceptions) are presumably Christian.

Apart from the good things I'd heard about the movie, I was looking forward to it because I'd read Balham to Bollywood, the very amusing book by Chris England, one of the English actors, about the making of the movie. Also, the movie was filmed near the town of Bhuj, in the middle of a desert in a remote part of the state of Gujarat--where Mrs. California and I, for reasons lost in the mists of time, had decided to visit as tourists (can it be nine years ago already?). There was an earthquake there in 2001, shortly after the movie came out, and the movie's star/producer, leading the rest of the group, devoted considerable effort and money to relief projects.

Really, see this movie if you get the chance. It's not the most profound work of art you'll ever witness, but it's very good at doing what it does, and you won't regret spending the time watching it.

*Like the time I went to see Dances with Wolves in Bangkok. It was OK for 15 minutes or so, after which most of the dialogue was in Lakota and the subtitles were in Thai. Still, it was the hot season, and my main reason for going was to get a couple of hours of air conditioning (I was staying in a backpacker hostel), so the show was basically a success.

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