Big Bollyhoo

Hit the Hay: Aamir Khan as Bhuvan and Gracy Singh as Gauri in Lagaan.Photo: Hardeep Singh Sachdev

If you’ve never experienced a Bollywood musical before, seeing Lagaan will be like watching Gone With the Wind without ever having seen a Hollywood movie. The Indian film industry, the largest in the world, is centered in Bombay, and churns out more than 900 films a year for 300 million moviegoers who buy more than 5 billion tickets. The bulk of these films are musical extravaganzas that make Busby Berkeley’s collected works seem lethargic by comparison; I doubt whether even Carmen Miranda in her prime could have upstaged all these swirling saris and turbans. In some of the films, even the elephants seem to be dancing (and enjoying it). Shot primarily in Hindi and regional dialects for audiences who not infrequently are poor and illiterate, Bollywood movies are at the opposite extreme from the languorous, meditative masterpieces of Satyajit Ray, the films most Westerners associate with Indian moviemaking. It would be easy to decry these movies as corrupt, ersatz entertainment for the masses and all that, but why spoil the fun? I’ve never seen a Bollywood musical without feeling like I just inhaled helium; the best of them are rapturously silly without ever being mistaken for art.

Lagaan, which runs three hours and 45 minutes, and was nominated for a foreign-film Oscar this year, is the most expensive Indian film ever made. It’s the complete Bollywood package, containing preposterous heroism, dewy-eyed romance, and calisthenic musical numbers featuring wriggling waves of cavorters. Enthusiastically clunky, these sequences would not have given Vincente Minnelli any sleepless nights, but their sheer eager-to-please-ness can be tremendously enjoyable – perhaps even more so for Westerners than for Indians, since we are not as familiar with some of the ethnic clichés. (You can’t turn out 900 movies a year and not recycle.) Still, despite its length, you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen in Lagaan after sitting through its first half hour, and this, I would guess, is intentional. Audiences for these romantic costume epics are not in the market for novelty; they want a story they already know in advance. If you’re the kind of person who gives up on a movie once you’ve figured out where the storyline is going, you’d be well advised to avoid Lagaan. Also, if you’d rather hear an actor say “Where’s the rain?” instead of “When will the sky darken with clouds?,” you’d best stay away.

On the other hand, when will American audiences ever again get such a rich opportunity to sample such a huge hunk of Bollywood all at once? Set in 1893 in a small village in British-occupied India during an extended drought, it’s about the clash between the tyrannical Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), who has levied a cruel land tax – a lagaan – on the locals, and Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), the fiery farmer who rallies everybody to oppose the British by engaging them in a do-or-die cricket match: If Bhuvan’s team wins, the tax will be repealed; if they lose, it triples.

The most entertaining section of the movie, which was written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and has a full-throated score by A. R. Rahman, is Bhuvan’s extended recruitment of his eleven-member team. A palsied untouchable turns out to possess an unhittable screwball; the local hen catcher has all the right moves for fielding grounders; and so on. Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), goes gaga for Bhuvan and helps him learn the fundamentals of cricket while Bhuvan’s girlfriend, Gauri (Gracy Singh), makes pouty faces on the sidelines. It all comes to a head in the final hour, when the cricket match is played in what appears to be real time. (I wish Elizabeth had done a better job of explaining the rules. I’ve never understood the damned game.) Who will win? One hint: It’s not the British.

The film’s stars have an ardent openness that recalls the great silent-movie luminaries, except their faces are generally far less expressive. What they project is brazen emotion uncomplicated by much thought; they’re pop myths in motion. The British in this film are even less complicated: Elizabeth, with her perfect pearly teeth and white-carnation complexion, is sugary with goodwill; her brother is such a sniggering shit that it’s too bad he didn’t have a longer mustache to twirl. We are used to seeing Indians stereotyped in Western movies; here, the tables are turned, and the justice, if not poetic, is welcome. Lagaan is, after all, a fantasy: Its subtitle is Once Upon a Time in India.

The Indian community in Trinidad in the forties is the subject of The Mystic Masseur, which was directed by Ismail Merchant and adapted by Caryl Phillips from V. S. Naipaul’s first novel. The witty source material resonates with the cultural contradictions of colonialism, and the filmmakers have done a reasonably good job of dramatizing them. Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi) is the schoolteacher from Port of Spain who heads into the country to establish himself as a writer, and in the process becomes first a healer dispensing folk wisdom and then, as a result of his success, a politician puppetized by the British. It’s a sinuous, bittersweet odyssey, and although the filmmaking lacks finesse, the actors, especially Mandvi, with his bright, sorrowful beauty, and the great Om Puri, who plays Ganesh’s father-in-law with an infernal crankiness, are always worth watching. The film has some of the appeal of the early Merchant-Ivory movies set in India, like Shakespeare Wallah and The Guru, which were made before their collaborations became spit-shined with prestige.

As Christine Papin in Murderous Maids – one of the notorious real-life Papin sisters who in 1933 hacked to death their employer and the employer’s daughter and then waited calmly for the authorities to arrive – Sylvie Testud gives such a ferociously controlled performance that the messy murder seems like a necessary release. How else could she let her demons out? Jean Genet, who based his 1947 play The Maids on the Papins, would, I think, have applauded her.

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker; starring Paul Blackthorne and Aamir Khan.
The Mystic Masseur
Directed by Ismail Merchant; starring Aasif Mandvi and Om Puri.

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