Friday, January 30, 2009

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)

Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Country: India

It's only fitting that I follow up Slumdog Millionaire with a genuine Bollywood flick. This particular one was made fairly recently and gained much acclaim, most notably an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film and worldwide popularity. I chose to seek it out in the middle of a gloomy Canadian winter with hopes of raising my snow-bound spirits, and boy, did it do the trick. True to the ambitions of many a Bollywood picture, Lagaan is hugely entertaining on multiple levels.

The film is set in 1893, when the British still had a colonial presence in India. Its title refers to a grain tax that villages must pay towards the English. In the midst of a draught, a small village's prospects grow considerably darker after the arrogant Captain Andrew Russell (a villain perfectly designed to draw all manners of boos and hisses from the audience) doubles the Lagaan for seemingly no other reason than sheer malice towards the native population. Enter Bhuvan, a spirited young man (played by star Aamir Khan, who also produced the film) who takes up a challenge against the sneering officer for his people's good: a cricket match which, if won by the village, will excuse the entire province from Lagaan for three years; but if the British win, the Lagaan will be tripled.

I was delighted to notice that this film bears many similarities with another Asian epic: Seven Samurai. As in that film, a village facing a threat from forces of oppression must gather together a team of heroes in a short period of time to prepare, practice and mount a defensive force. Granted, Lagaan is set in India, centers around a cricket match rather than actual combat and throws in all sorts of extra ingredients like colonial politics and enthralling musical numbers, but nonetheless, the resemblances are there. As in Kurosawa's film, the story's structure allows plenty of time to be devoted to the numerous characters both within and outside the village as each side prepares themselves and the cricket match looms closer and closer. Plenty of subplots crop up, most prominent among them a love triangle between Bhuvan, Gauri (Gracy Singh), a village girl who harbors strong feelings for him, and Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the Captain's sister who decides to help the Indian team.

Lagaan could accurately be described as more focused and straight-forward than most other Bollywood epics. By sticking to the villagers' plight and their opposition to the colonial forces' tyranny, it maintains a fairly consistent tone and doesn't go overboard with too many outlandish elements. That said, it still contains its share of song and dance sequences, which I greatly enjoyed. The music was provided by none other than A.R. Rahman, who also composed the score for Slumdog Millionaire and is nominated for three Oscars for his work on that film (for Best Original Score and the songs "Jai Ho" and "O Saya"). Each song provided a nice break from the narrative flow while amplifying the characters' emotions at various points with hugely entertaining vivacity (though maybe it wasn't such a good idea to have Elizabeth join in for one song with her own, comparatively bland Western musical style).

Even though it clocks in at 3 hours and 45 minutes, Lagaan moves its story along at a steady pace, and not one minute of it felt wasted. This is probably as good a "crossover" flick into the vast realm of Bollywood cinema as you're likely to find, giving a good taste of authentic Indian screen entertainment in a highly accessible form. It certainly worked for me, and I'm looking forward to seeking out more of the delights that Bollywood has to offer. For those of you out there who are looking for something to tide you over until Slumdog comes out on DVD (or, at least, sweeps the Oscars, which I'm hoping it does), why not give this a try?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Director: Danny Boyle
Country: United Kingdom

We've come a long way from The River. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, that film is a French-American co-production directed by Jean Renoir and set in India. It balances the coming of age story of a young girl in an English household by the banks of the Bengal river with documentary-like segments depicting the life and customs of the Indian people. Being Renoir's first color film, it is beautiful to look at and tries to provide an embracing, honest look at India, but it is still very much situated in a distinctly colonial perspective. As Satyajit Ray, who served as an assistant on the film and went on to become one of India's most renowned filmmakers, noted with disappointment, though the film was about and shot in India, only one of the principal players was Indian (played by the actress Radha). Honest and revealing though it may be, it only ever achieves a partial view of India. But like I said, we've come a long way from The River, and since that film, Western filmmakers have progressed considerably in their consideration of this magical country.

Recently, there has been a sort of resurgence of interest from Western filmmakers to make movies in and about India. Last year, we saw Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which still carried his trademark style, but was nonetheless set in India (drawing influence not only from The River, but also the films of Ray himself). Shortly before the Mumbai attacks, Paul Schrader openly voiced his desire to go to India to make a film there. And then comes Slumdog Millionaire: the Danny Boyle-helmed Dickensian romance centered around a gameshow which just happened to take film festivals by storm, clean up at the Golden Globes and has a very strong chance of doing the same at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.

Tons have already been written about Slumdog in the interwebs and beyond, so I'll keep my own assessment of the movie short. Frankly, I loved it. The kinetic, stylish, madcap Danny Boyle who gave us Trainspotting is back, but in a whole new setting that oddly suits him. While his recognizable traits are present, he also makes the wise (and, as far as what I've heard about India, irresistable) choice to surrender to his surroundings. Unlike The River, or The Darjeeling Limited for that matter, he successfully captures the real, unfiltered India in his film, drinking in the many intoxicating sights and not shying away from the harsher ones, letting them all be captured by his cameras (which, according to this interview with Darren Aronofsky, sound like a guerilla filmmaker's wet dream) and contribute immeasurably to the story he is telling. In this film, India is very much an active participant in the story, helping shape the characters, growing and changing right along with them. Slumdog uses an old, tried-and-true story formula of a long, challenging quest for lost love, but its success is all about the way that story is told, and the captivating adrenaline rush that this film delivers is full proof of that. I can't wait to see it again.

Oh yeah, and this is my favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year (even though it would be very cool if the Academy bestwed the award to a certain superhero flick).