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February 12, 2002
Lagaan: India's third Oscar nominee
Arthur J Pais in New York
Lagaan becomes the third Indian film --- after Mother India and Salaam Bombay! --- to win a best foreign film nomination. Earlier, Gandhi, an Indian and British co-production, contested in the mainstream category and won most of the top Oscars at the 1982 ceremony.
Hindi actor-producer Aamir Khan might swear he is off desi awards. But he invested a lot of time and money to draw Hollywood's attention to his debut production, Lagaan.
The film grossed about $2 million in North America and Great Britain. In the absence of an Oscar --- or a nomination --- it could not cross over to mainstream audiences. "Many British and American journalists tell us our film could have crossover appeal," Khan's wife and the film's executive producer Reena Dutta told rediff.com at the Toronto Film Festival last September, where Lagaan won applause. "We believe an Oscar nomination will help us re-launch the film in the mainstream market."
Lagaan screenings have largely drawn audiences from the subcontinent despite a few Americans and British viewers. "We are told our film could appeal to people who loved Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon," Ashutosh Gowariker, the film's director, told rediff.com in a telephone conversation from Dubai.
To attract even a small percentage of the audiences who loved the subtitled Crouching Tiger -- making it a $120 million hit in North America -- Lagaan needs major exposure in the mainstream media or a big award, reasons Gowariker.
But the film did not have much luck with mainstream reviewers. While in England it received raves from The Guardian in America, only Variety reviewed Lagaan. It got virtually no press at the Toronto Film Festival. Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, on the other hand, got some of the best reviews. Maya, the controversial film about a young girl forced into ceremonial sexual acts in a temple, received plenty of press, too.
In a way, Lagaan's Oscar campaign started at the Toronto Film Festival, attended by major Hollywood filmmakers and critics from every major North American publication. Since the film failed to capture much attention at the Canada event, the resolve to garner an Oscar nomination became more urgent. That is why Khan has decided to personally campaign for his film in Los Angeles.
Like many other Oscar nomination contenders -- there were 51 in all --- Khan's company took full-page advertisements in the influential trade publications: Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Khan spent over a week in Los Angeles with Gowariker, supervising the screening of the film for Oscar panelists. The director and star sought the attention of major American publications including the Los Angeles Times for their film, hoping to create a buzz.
Lagaan competed with many high-profile films that won significant awards at international film festivals and garnered rave reviews from major American publications. The only award Lagaan has won abroad is the audience choice award at a comparatively low-profile film festival in Locarno.
The French film, Amelie, an Oscar nominee, is a huge hit, having grossed $20 million in America and $100 million abroad. The Golden Globe winner for best foreign film, Bosnia's No Man's Land grossed a modest $300,000 before the awards but won significant kudos including best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. 'Superb, fierce, funny,' declared Rolling Stone.
Lagaan's makers were aware that several reviewers skipped viewing the film. "Do you really want to see a three-and-half-hour-long Indian film right in the morning?" a journalist was heard asking his colleague in Toronto before shepherding him to another screening.
There was no way the film could be shown in a shorter version, counters Gowariker, adding, "Its music and dances are part of its story. In fact, it would not really be an Indian film without them. It will go to film festivals as it is. We will not sell a shorter version of the film. I have the full backing of Aamir and Reena. If audiences in Locarno loved our film, audiences elsewhere will love it too."
Conservative estimates pitch Khan's expenses to win an Oscar nomination at $200,000.
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