Lagaan: India’s 2001 Oscar Nominee–Bollywood Epic

For the past decade, the Best Foreign Language Oscar has been won by a global blockbuster: Kolya (Czech) in 1996, Life Is Beautiful (Italy) in 1998, All About My Mother (Spain) in 1999, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan) in 2000.

History would suggest that Amelie, with worldwide gross of $138 million(by Oscar time even more) will follow the same path.  But it was not to be. The surprise winner of both the Golden Globes and the Oscars was No Man’s Land.

Since the war-ravaged Bosnia has hardly any cinemas left, No Man’s Land’s grosses there, $215,000, should be considered a special if not an impossible achievement.  The film’s distributor, Obala, took two Dolby projectors on a tour and screened the film in the country’s sports halls and public arenas.

The other three foreign contenders in 2001 were: Son of the Bride, Elling, and Lagaan.  In Norway, Elling is the all-time number one local picture, grossing a combined 5.9 million dollars across the Scandinavian territories.

Son of the Bride was Argentina’s biggest local movie. After topping charts in Argentina, the film ran strongly with a four million dollars in Spain, where Latin American movies have routinely failed.  The Bride’s Son’s Spanish takings surged 60 percent higher in the weekend after the Oscar nominations.  Sony Picture Classics opened the film on March 22, during the Oscar weekend, but, unfortunately, the film didn’t find its audience.

The Indian Oscar nominee, Lagaan, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who co-wrote the scenario with Sanjay Dayma and Kumar Dave, is a blend of Bollywood and Merchant-Ivory costume drama.  Despite its 223 minute running-time, Lagaan came in at number three in India.

One of the most expensive Bollywood films, Lagaan, set in 1893, concerns the Indian village Champaner, beset by drought and British colonialism.

The worried villagers decide to ask the local authorities for a temporary repeal of their taxes–the Lagaan. Led by the heroic Bhuvan (Indian superstar Aamir Khan) they bring their plight to the military governor, Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne). But the sadistic Russell threatens to raise the lagaan threefold, unless the villagers can beat his men at cricket, in which case he’ll lift taxes on the entire province for three years. Bhuvan accepts the challenge, only to face the problem that no one in Champaner knows how to play cricket.

A band of misfits come to the rescue, coached by Russell’s soft-hearted sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), and the race is set in three months’ time.

An epic with song-and-dance routines, and lavish costumes, Lagaan played strongly both in India and in Bollywood theaters in the U.S. and U.K., but it has yet to cross effectively non-Indian audiences.