'I really want Spielberg to watch Lagaan'

Hema Ravikumar in Los Angeles

The room at this exclusive hotel in the heart of Hollywood's elite district off Sunset Boulevard is crowded and chaotic.

Papers, faxes and files are strewn everywhere. A computer spits out a litany of email. A Universal Studios cap and another cap with the USC (University of Southern California) logo are perched atop the clutter on the barely visible desk.

Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya (Gandhi, 1982), Sunita Gowariker (director Ashutosh Gowariker's wife), the perennially-on-wheels local coordinator Madhu Kapur, and a couple of others are sitting, pacing and talking without pause.

Ashutosh Gowariker is trying to field a call on his cell phone, while cradling the receiver on the room unit.

At least three people are on call waiting. "Thank you so much. We will miss you at tomorrow's lunch," Ashutosh says earnestly into the instrument, sounding much like a Hollywood director schmoozing with a colleague. "Ask them to be there at five," he says to two people simultaneously.

I presume he means journalists like myself.

"Tell Mr so and so (a very French-sounding name) I am going to be late," he pleads.

Ashutosh has just promised to sit down with me for at least 45 minutes for a one-to-one on the eve of the Oscars. "I don't want to be rushed and stressed. I'd like to be calm and relaxed for the interview," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Calm. Relaxed. Two words that seem far removed from this location on a typical Los Angeles late winter afternoon.

We are running late for our interview. I suppress my instinct to hurry things. Ashutosh is under pressure already. Everyone leaves en masse; we finally sit down to chat. He looks comfortable in dazzling white cotton Lucknowi chikan kurta and blue jeans. He has already been to a meeting or two in this attire.

I ask whether he wants a coffee or a drink before we begin. "I am fine," he smiles, his face lighting up.

The Oscar frenzy is building up in the media. Asked whether he is feeling jittery, Ashutosh is casually dismissive: "We [he and actor-producer Aamir Khan] have done our best. We have made a good film that we are all very proud of."

He elaborates, "I am discovering that wherever we go in LA, people recognize the fact that we [Lagaan] have been nominated [in the Best Foreign Language Film category]. Being acknowledged as one of the top five films in the world is itself an honor. On the night of the 24th, one film will get that extra bit of acknowledgement. That is all. I am a little nervous. But I am sure I will be fine on Oscar night," he asserts.

What about the fact that (French) Amelie and (Bosnia's) No Man's Land, especially the former, have swept American audiences and likely the 5700 Academy members who will decide the fate of the films? "It's an apples and oranges comparison," Ashutosh says "Remember [actor] Amol Palekar's offbeat art movies and [Ramesh Sippy's] Sholay. How can one compare them?

"One kind of person likes Sholay; the other would like non-commercial cinema. It doesn't mean one is necessarily better than the other. All five films nominated in the foreign film category are great. The judges have a tough task. I think Lagaan has been a pleasant surprise for people who have seen it. Let's wait and watch," he says.

"Yesterday after a screening of Lagaan at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles), where USC students also participated, Aamir and I did a question and answer session. It was scheduled for half an hour; it went on for an hour," Ashutosh volunteers. "It was fabulous to be there. One has heard so much about UCLA and USC being great institutions. And there you are, in the middle of it all. It was a great experience," he reminisces.

What was the most thought-provoking question you were asked, I venture. "Hmm. A woman asked me if I would make socially relevant films. She surprised me, because I have been mulling over that for a while now. Without a hit, it is difficult to make a film like that. Now, after Lagaan's success, I have the freedom to make a film on a socially relevant issue close to my heart. And make it with the confidence that it will be well received."

Have there been any deals cooking the last few weeks of his stay? "I have received four or five scripts," he admits. "I am looking through them, but it is too early to say anything. Aamir and I have come here only for one thing; Mission Lagaan. We want to ensure that we get word out and that the movie gets its due. Everything else comes later." Meanwhile Ashutosh has met Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj, and a host of powerhouses keenly interested in collaborating with him on several upcoming projects.

Who do you want to meet on Oscar night, I ask him. Pat comes the reply, "[Steven] Spielberg, and [Francis Ford] Coppola, for sure." I tell him a news item reported in the Economic Times said Spielberg has already seen Lagaan. "Oh that's a surprise. Can you email the article to me?" he says at once. "I really want Spielberg to watch Lagaan," he says wistfully .

He moves on to a lighter topic: "I am wearing a sherwani [designed by Bhanu Athaiya]. I have two or three choices. I'm not sure which one I will wear. [Wife] Sunita will wear a beige chikan sari designed by Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla," he says with enthusiasm.

I thought it was easy for men to decide what to wear, I prod. "I will probably wear the white one," he concedes.

Any superstitions, any eccentricities he might exercise on the big night? Or is he rational and cool? "Well, I will definitely says a little prayer. We are very thankful for the good wishes and prayers of Indians at home and the world over. I am set to enjoy the whole experience whatever happens on Oscar night." His eyes dreamily caress a copy of 2001 Space Odyssey resting atop the television set.

Do you have a speech prepared, I ask him. "No. If I have to go up on stage, I think I will just speak from my heart. Because even if I prepare something, I am sure I will forget all about it when I get on stage. So if Lagaan does win, I will go up there and say what comes naturally."


Design: Uday Kuckian

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