Did Lagaan really lose?

Manav Kher

It is a day after the Oscar Awards.

Ashutosh Gowariker's film Lagaan lost out to Bosnia's No Man's Land. There are many theories being touted as to why the film didn't make an Oscar. But that, to me, is not the point.

In fact, I would dare to ask, did Lagaan really lose?

Consider: one of the biggest challenges for a foreign [non Hollywood] filmmaker is to get the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to watch the film at a theatre -- an Academy requirement for the foreign language nominating committee.

Lagaan, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by Aamir Khan, was the only movie out of the five nominated that wasn't released in the United States before the 74th Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre, Los Angeles, on March 24.

So how did it make it to the nominated five out of the 51 foreign films (a record in itself) submitted this year? In terms of quality, 'It has been the best in years,' said Mark Gill, head of Miramax LA, who also handles many foreign film purchases for the company. 'You definitely have less of the won't-travel-five-steps-across-the-border syndrome.'

Lagaan, released in India in June 2001, was a smash hit, making about $14 million. But, to his surprise, Aamir Khan discovered that not many people in Hollywood had heard of his film, let alone seen it.

Khan had his job cut out. He took the initiative to fly down to Hollywood in December 2001, just a month before the Academy voters were to decide the finalists. With not many contacts, he started holding screenings for his film. Working from a West Hollywood hotel, he invited Indian friends living in LA who, in turn, invited their American counterparts. A buzz was generated. Things started moving for Lagaan.

'I met several people to learn how the system operates. The members have to view 80 per cent of the films nominated to be eligible to vote. If the members view the film, it stands a good chance,' Aamir said. 'But,' he grinned mischievously, 'they also said that in the last ten years, none of the Hindi films have been up to the mark. So members usually avoid seeing an Indian film. I just wanted them to see Lagaan. That's it."

One of the most important breakthroughs for Lagaan came in the form of Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields) and producer Peter Rawley, both of whom had seen the film in India. 'We told [Khan and Gowariker] in Mumbai what they had to do,' Rawley said.

'You have to generate a buzz and a must-see feeling for the film. That is done through a series of networks.'

Three people showed up at the first screening of Lagaan, six at the second, 20 at the third and so on. The numbers continued to grow. Khan also bought ads in important trade publications like Hollywood Reporter and Variety to publicise his screenings.

Before long, he generated positive awareness for his film which, before the nominations didn't even have a US distributor. Sony Pictures Classics quickly acquired distributor rights for the film. (Lagaan will now release in the US on May 10.)

When his film didn't make the Golden Globe nomination, Khan said he was disheartened. It was Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, instead of Lagaan that won a Golden Globe nomination. Two of the five Oscar nominees were on the nomination list for the coveted (often a precursor to the Oscars night), Golden Globe Award. Incidentally, this year's Best Foreign Film, No Man's Land (Bosnia), also won the Golden Globe Award.

Moral of the story?

Coming out of a market that is not known to produce the usual suspect in terms of Oscar-quality films (read appreciated by American audiences), it is very difficult to get your foot in the [Hollywood] door.

Aamir Khan needed more than a quality film to get the attention that Lagaan (and the Indian film industry, as one of the largest producers of feature films in the world), did. Moreover, Khan has probably done more than he set out to do. He has done more than just get his foot in the door.

Like another Oscar winner [Halle Berry, this year's Best Actress] put it, 'It [her award] is for every nameless faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened'.

For the first time, the Academy's highest awards for acting have been won by non-whites [Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his role in Training Day].

I can't help but view it as a positive sign. For India. And for Aamir Khan.


Design: Uday Kuckian

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