I’m back after a week off. I wish I could say it was a deeply productive week, but it was pretty standard. For this week’s post, I took some recommendations from my very close friend Anusha. I have had the immense privilege of going to grad school with lots of people from different cultures, and I’ve learned a lot about Indian culture in the last 5 years or so. She always recommends Indian movies she likes to me, and I finally took her up on it. She insisted I watch one movie in Hindi, and one in Tamil, her native language, so this week’s films are:
Ashutash Gowariker – Lagaan (2001)
Vetriraaman – Visaaranai (Interrogation) (2015)
One thing I should explain is why it was important to watch films in different languages if they come from the same country. In the US, we have this idea of other countries as homogeneous entities where they are all essentially the same. But it’s not like that in India. India is a country made up of many regions and states and while Hindi is spoken in many places, there are also several other languages there. My friend Anusha is from Chennai, where they speak Tamil.
So I was excited to watch these and write about them because of my respect for Anusha, but also, I think Indian movies have a specific reputation in America. The Indian movie industry is enormous, second only to the US film industry. But they rarely if ever cross over into American culture. When we do see Indian films, they’re usually represented as strange and ridiculous, with huge dance numbers that come out of nowhere, and action scenes with insane over the top stars.
But Bollywood, as the Hindi film industry is coined, has it’s own film language, and if we dig into what that means and accept it as valid, I expect we’ll find some good storytelling in there.
So let’s get into it.
In 1893, India is still under British rule. The local villages are suffering from a serious drought, and their crops won’t grow. Without their crops, they can’t pay their taxes. The local British officers demand they pay double tax to make up for the previous year’s half tax. The villagers know that they can’t possibly do this and survive, so they plead with the officer for mercy. In a fit of anger, the British captain makes them a bargain. They will play a single game of cricket. If the villagers win, they will be excused from the tax for 3 years, but if they lose, they will have to pay triple tax. A rash villager Bhuvan accepts for everyone, and they are forced to learn this unfamiliar game, to try to save not only their crops, but their lives.
The film is directed by Ashutash Gowariker and stars Aamir Khan as Bhuvan. The cast is extensive, and the film runs almost four hours. That’s a pretty long movie, especially for the amount of time I usually have. But it was the top recommendation, so I jumped in. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language film in 2002, but it was up against some stiff competition, including Amelie, and No Man’s Land, which eventually won. The title of the film, Lagaan, translates to ‘tax’, and it’s a major theme of the film.
The film has a cast of mostly Indian actors, but a few British actors playing the British officers and some other characters. Most notably, Paul Blackthorne as Captain Russell, who isn’t a household name, but has a very recognizable face. He plays the villain, and it’s nice to see that the Indian film industry uses the same British villain trope that American film does. Of course, they have a much better reason to do so than we do.
The film opens by showing us the daily lives of the villagers and setting the scene. We start to meet the villagers, like Guran, the fortune teller, and Gauri, the young woman looking forward to her marriage, as soon as she convinces the man she wants. The film does a really clever thing here, where it has everyone talking about Bhuvan before we see him. This sets him up as a major character.
When we first see Bhuvan, he’s hiding in the woods, staring down some deer. We assume he’s hunting them, but then he throws a rock at them, scaring them off just as a British officer fires his gun. He’s protecting the animals. He’s caught, and the British officer, Russell threatens him. The scene introduces Bhuvan as the hero, who will stand up to the British.
The film does a lot of work to put Russell in the villain role, and it’s not subtle. We see him early on in a scene with the king of the region, talking about the tax. The king pleads for his people when Russell tells him they need double tax. It’s already been set up that that the king is a vegetarian. Russell offers him a deal, if he’ll eat one of the meat dishes that has been prepared for lunch, he will cancel the tax increase. For Americans, this would certainly be considered rude, trying to force a vegetarian to eat meat, but for someone following Hinduism, it’s a pretty serious offense. It’s part of his religion. The film lays on the villainy of the British incredibly thick. The British don’t see the Indians as people. They’re just there to support the British in their conquests, not much more respected than slaves. We in America don’t think about it that much, but for Indian people, this is a dark time in their history.
So this film isn’t just about a cricket match, it’s about the struggle for freedom, and the film makes this very clear. We do spend some time with the British, but the film focuses on the Indian villagers. The main topic early in the film is the lack of rain. In their world, it’s all that really matters. They have enough drinking water, but the crops won’t grow. Early on in the film, we see how important it is, as the villagers see clouds rolling in, and start celebrating.
This is the first song in the film. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, as I’d never watched a complete Bollywood movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. The song wasn’t superfluous in any way. It rounded out the story, and fit into the narrative. And we even got extra information about the characters in the song. For example, Gauri constantly dances near Bhuvan, the man she loves, who doesn’t seem to love her. And Lakha, the man who hopes that Gauri will pick him we see in the background giving longing glances at Gauri and angry glares at Bhuvan. But during the song the clouds pass them over, and the rain doesn’t come.
The villagers then learn of the double tax from the king’s messenger, and go to beg the king for mercy. But when they arrive, the British are playing a game of cricket, which Bhuvan suggests is similar to a game they play called gilli-danda. When the ball rolls over to them, one of them picks him up, which earns him a smack and scolding from the British officers. This begins the series of events that sets up the rest of the film. Captain Russell recognizes Bhuvan, and singles him out, making his offer. Bhuvan is of course not the authority for the village. But Russell won’t accept an answer from anyone but him. He’s bullying Bhuvan, and Bhuvan takes the bait, accepting the offer once Russell raises the stakes high enough, offering him three years free of tax, or one year of triple tax.
The village is crushed. They know they can’t pay the triple tax, but Bhuvan stands his ground, and he makes a pretty good argument. He asks them who could have paid even the double tax? If they paid it, they would have starved, so now at least they have a chance. But of course, the villagers aren’t convinced, and Bhuvan has to keep working to convince them.
His strategy is simply to build a cricket bat and ball in his wood working stall, and try to get people interested. This is a great scene and Bhuvan manages to get a couple of people interested in the game, Tipu, a younger boy in the village, Guran, the fortune teller, and Bagha, a temple drummer.
This sort of scene is straight out of a sports movie, and it works really well. The film does an amazing job of embracing the tropes of a sports movie, making a pretty comfortable experience for an American viewer. The film is also heavily influenced by the hero’s journey film structure. We follow Bhuvan as he enters a new world, one of responsibility, trying to be a leader.
As the team starts to form, the villagers only have one problem, they know nothing about cricket. This works great for me as an American, because I also know nothing about cricket. And from what I know of my Indian friends, they do know quite a bit about cricket. But the film takes pity on me, and does a great job of explaining the game. By the end of the film, I felt like I could follow the sport pretty well. At least well enough to understand the stakes of the film.
The film solves the problem of the villagers not knowing the game by introducing Elizabeth, Captain Russell’s sister, who sees how cruel Russell is being, and decides to help the villagers by teaching the game.
As this process continues, we get a ton of subplots that build out the characters. Lakha, the main rival for Gauri, begins working for Russell, informing on Bhuvan and how the team is doing. We also get a love triangle between Gauri, Elizabeth, and Bhuvan, as Gauri’s jealousy rises when Elizabeth gets involved and Bhuvan begins spending more time with her. This leads to the best song in the film, when Elizabeth attends a religious ceremony, and we hear the story of Krishna and Radha, husband and wife in the mythology. Gauri sings a song about Radha’s jealousy, taking the role of the goddess herself, while Bhuvan responds as Krishna, dismissing her concerns and telling her he only has eyes for her, all while Elizabeth sits in the audience, not totally understanding the significance.
The team continues to build, as the villagers start to trust Bhuvan more, and Bhuvan finds people with specific skills that relate to cricket skills. We meet one man who keeps chickens, and is taken on as an expert at fielding the ball. Another man uses a sling to fire rocks who is taken on as an expert at bowling (pitching). There’s also a disabled man they take on the team, who is able to pitch the ball in a way that spins when it hits the ground, confusing players.
This delves into the complex world of the Indian caste system, which I don’t know much about, but Anusha gave me a brief crash course. The disabled man is known as an untouchable, which means he is casteless, essentially an outcast to society. No one else wants him on the team. In fact, several team members begin to leave. But Bhuvan makes a big speech, convincing everyone that Kachra, the disabled man has value to society as well.
This speech stuck out to me, but not for good reasons. It really felt like a self-serving insert, a kind of virtue signalling. My friend Anusha agreed with me, calling the speech ‘phony’. From her perspective, India still has a major problem with separating people by caste, despite a widespread feeling that they’ve moved past it. It sound a lot like problems we have in the US.
The only misstep here from my perspective is the song that Elizabeth sings about being in love with Bhuvan, which is intercut with Gauri singing her own song. Unlike the other songs, which maintain the period costumes, Elizabeth is seen in a modern dress and a location we haven’t seen before. It honestly looks like a completely different film.
The love triangle is wrapped up in a very sweet way. Early in the film, Gauri tells Bhuvan what the fortuneteller has told her, about the home she will live in, it’s very detailed. But as Gauri is convinced that Bhuvan will choose Elizabeth, he lets her off the hook, telling her he knows there’s only one house matching that description in the village, accepting her.
Everything leads up to the big match. The film takes almost an hour of screentime for the match, and it’s well-used. Now, if you’ve ever seen a sports movie, you know what’s coming, and this film follows all the beats exactly. We even get a training montage set to music. It starts out with everything going wrong, and the team seems like it can’t possibly win, but they dig deep, solve their problems, and pull it off at the end.
In a previous life as a podcast host, I spent some time interviewing Angelo Pizzo, the man who wrote Hoosiers and Rudy, and he told me that he couldn’t even watch sports movies anymore because of how many he had written, and he just knows everything that’s going to happen. That’s kind of how I felt watching the cricket scenes in this film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying. It’s actually incredibly satisfying.
The villagers triumph, and celebrate their three years free of tax. And in a perfect button to the film, as soon as the game ends, the rains begin.
Some movies that are 90 minutes long seem to drag on forever. But this four hour long movie was engaging the entire way through. The film has 15-20 characters to keep track of, and the movie does a great job of doling out the screentime, giving everyone a little moment. The stakes are also serious, and we never wonder what the villagers are fighting for, or why Russell is so intent on winning. The film could have just let it go at “ego” or pride, but actually raises the stakes for him, as he’s told by his superiors after he’s made the bet that he either has to win, or pay the 3 years of tax himself.
The other thing I found interesting was how the film treated English scenes. The British officers are capable of speaking Hindi, but in scenes together, they of course speak English. This isn’t a problem for me, but during these scenes when characters are speaking English only, the film introduces a Hindi voiceover, which explains what the characters are talking about. It’s an interesting solution to a multi-lingual film which doesn’t necessarily have a multi-lingual audience.
Despite a few missteps, the film is great, and well worth the four hour running time.
4 men are accused of a robbery that they didn’t commit. They are taken in and beaten viciously by the police, who hope to get a quick confession, but the men resist, and in court, the police are forced to let them go. But what will be the consequences when the men are taken under the protection of another police officer in their native Tamil Nadu?
The film is directed by Vetrimaaran, and is based on a true story. A book written by one of the men who lived the story. The film opens by showing us how the men live, sleeping on the ground in a public park, using the shower facilities there. They are from Tamil Nadu, but are in a different Indian state, where they speak a different language, and they are constantly marked as different. They all have jobs, and are trying to make money to be successful, but are having a hard time. We see the life of Pandi specifically, as he goes into town early, while it’s still dark outside, having some tea, then visiting a barber shop to use their combs and going into town to open the small store he works at.
But his relaxed morning suddenly turns south, as a police officer come to the store and arrests him roughly, with two of the other men he sleeps in the park with, Murugan and Kumar. At the police station, they are lulled into a false sense of security before being beaten with sticks. Kumar tries to run, but another officer hits him in the face with a bucket, knocking him out.
The mind games continue. The next morning, when the inspector shows up, he pretends to listen to their pleas, then orders his men to strip them, and beat them more. They demand that they own up to the crimes. The men try to figure out what they have done. Pandi has a theory that it has to do with a woman he has a crush on, that he tried to help the night before.
But after several more beatings, the men discover they are being held for a burglary, and no matter how much they protest that they didn’t do it, the beatings only intensify. Their only real hope is their boss, who has the means to help them. But even he tells them to simply admit the crime and go to jail, sort it out when they are released. But Pandi refuses to admit any wrongdoing.
He convinces his cellmates that the only way out is to go on hunger strike, and they agree. It works well, and the officers can’t beat them for fear of killing them. But they also can’t let them go, for fear of them talking about their treatment.
So the police agree to release the men. They send them to a local hotel to get some money, and then have them come back to sign a statement before their final release. The men go to the hotel, and upon being given the money, they are so hungry, they decide to eat. As the film indulges in their indulgence, we start to sense that something isn’t right.
When the men return to the police station, we discover that it was indeed all a trap. The police wanted the men to eat so that they could continue the beatings. They couldn’t in good conscience beat starving men, so they contrived a way to get them to eat of their own volition.
The beatings continue, until the police threaten the men’s boss with prosecution if the men don’t admit to the crime. The men finally agree, and are taken to court. The judge asks for their confession, but Pandi finally takes his chance, spilling his guts to the judge. They don’t speak the same language, so the judge asks for a visiting Tamil police officer to translate. He does, and the judge sides with the men, they are free to go.
In a lot of movies, this would be the end. The men are freed, and everything is ok. But that’s not where this story goes. As we’ve gone through the film, we’ve gotten a few scenes with these Tamil policemen, as they’re tracking a man, KK, they want to arrest. There’s a lot of confusion about this for me, but it becomes clear that the man is a political operative that the police want to confess to crimes so that they can discredit the opposition political leader. They also hope to receive a large bribe from the opposition party for letting the man go.
But the judge in the neighboring state won’t release KK to the Tamil police. Rather than taking that answer, the Tamil police decide to kidnap KK and bring him to their jurisdiction. To do this, the lead officer, Muthuvel, enlists the help of Pandi and his companions, who he has just saved.
It’s a complex plot, but it makes sense in the film. Pandi and his friends will do anything to help the man who saved them from certain doom. And Muthuvel seems trustworthy, he gives the men a ride back to Tamil Nadu, and even gives them a job cleaning up the police station. The men do their job well, but here the story shifts to Muthuvel and the Tamil police.
Now that they have him, their job is to get KK to confess, while their bosses work to get a bribe from his bosses. But signals get crossed in the police department, with one group working to keep him alive and confessing, and another group works to kill him for the opposition party. When KK dies in police custody, this sets up an entirely new set of problems. When the head of the department leaves a meeting room to find Pandi and his friends cleaning the bathroom, he assumes they have heard everything, and decides they have to go.
This sets up the final conflict of the film, where we find out if Muthuvel is trustworthy, or if he will sell the men down the river to ensure his own safety.
This movie is a bit of a rough watch. The men are constantly beaten, and on the edge of sanity, and every moment of kindness they are shown leads to another injustice. We really feel what these men are going through, and are able to put ourselves in their shoes.
The film is able to show us all the pressures of the system, but not let anyone off the hook for their evils they do. It would have been disappointing if the film had tried to cast the inspectors as ‘just following orders’, and I don’t think it does that. But we also understand. The inspectors aren’t villains in the classic sense, but we can see how they are also victims of this system. The system doesn’t reward justice, just quick resolution to crime, no matter who is taken in. In this story, the Tamil men are easy targets, poor, essentially homeless, and don’t speak the language.
But most of all, the movie makes us think, particularly about injustice, and how to stay vigilant.
The Double Feature
One of these films was an uplifting sports movie, showing us the power of the human spirit. The other shows us how vicious and cold some humans can be, and how easily we can toss aside the most vulnerable of society. So not a great match, but an interesting contrast. And an especially interesting look at two sides of the same film industry. Bollywood is much like Hollywood, trying to make films with heavy crowd appeal, where the good guys win, and everything turns out alright. The Tamil movie I watched reminded me more of the indie films I’ve seen. Much more focused on telling a complex story well, and being honest about the state of the world. I don’t think that there’s a one size fits all answer for which type is better. Many Hollywood movies are saccharine fluff, while many indie movies lose their point trying to convince the audience how important their point is.
But I will say that both of these films are worth watching, and both can be in the same conversation. We need movies that lift us up to remind us of the best of humanity, and we need films that hold up a mirror and show us how ugly we can be. Because regardless of the country they were made in, these are still stories about humans, which touches us all.
This post is deeply personal to me. My very close friend Anusha recommended these films to me as a window into her culture. As I said before I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged to have friends from other cultures. I think it’s an experience more people need. Not many Americans know what it’s like to be in a room where they’re in the minority, or on a team where they’re the only American. But it’s an essential life skill, especially as we look to the future.
So, what about next week? I’m still working, but I don’t think I’ll need to take another week off for the summer. But I’m also not going to do as many posts as I did last May, when I was posting 3-4 a week. We’ll stick with the once a week, and leave it at that.
So for next week, I’m going back to FilmStruck, and hitting up some more classic Hollywood films. One just popped up that I’ve always wanted to watch, and that made the choice for the other an easy pick. Next week’s films are:
Howard Hawks – Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Howard Hawks – The Big Sleep (1946)
I haven’t seen a ton of Howard Hawks movies, and I’ve never covered him, but he was one of the major directors of the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and all the way up to 1970. I was hoping to watch The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not together, but I couldn’t find a good copy of the latter. So Bringing Up Baby, the best film ever made about keeping a leopard as a pet will have to fill in.
See you next week.