Saturday, March 15, 2008

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Elizabeth Russell

I had bought a DVD of the Bollywood classic Lagaan 4 or 5 years ago, but had somehow never got around to watching it. I finally put this right a few months back, thinking that it would be the kind of 'wholesome family entertainment' that would make ideal Christmas viewing. I was quite right. It is absolutely charming, and the nearly 4-hr runtime fairly flies by.

And I was, of course, utterly smitten with the female protagonist, the spirited young Englishwoman Elizabeth Russell. There's something about lacy white blouses and straw hats..... and perhaps the suggestion of tension between the exterior primness and restraint and the passionate nature concealed within (I always maintain that Picnic At Hanging Rock is the most erotic film I've ever seen - don't laugh: I am quite serious!).

It may help that the actress who plays her, Rachel Shelley (I gather she has gone on to become rather famous through the American TV series The L-Word), is about the only person in the film required to do any real acting; the other Brits, anyway, are all one-dimensional upper-class twits. And it is a very affecting character she portrays - intelligent, principled, courageous, dignified, self-sacrificing (she falls in love with the dashing young Indian farmer who leads his village's opposition to the injustices of British rule, but accepts that she should not seek to part him from his local sweetheart).

I've long had a little bit of a weakness for Bollywood (during the 1990s, Air India always seemed to have the cheapest London-New York airfares, so I flew with them several times - always enjoying the curry meals and the seemingly never-ending inflight films). Lagaan was one of the first and best of Bollywood's occasional attempts in recent years to produce a 'crossover' film that can succeed in international markets: it has a big budget and Western-style production values; the cheesiness of the more run-of-the-mill Bollywood product is restrained; and it even has a decent script. It was the pet project of its star, the strikingly handsome Aamir Khan.

The film centres around a game of cricket (now, of course, one of India's great national passions; but back in the 1800s, a still-mysterious import of the British rulers) played between a group of Indian villagers and the British soldiers from the local garrison. The people of the village of Champaner, assailed by a drought, are unable to pay the annual tithe - the lagaan of the title - demanded by the British, and plead to be granted an exemption. The dastardly British captain in charge of the district (an over-the-top performance from Paul Blackthorne, but Bollywood likes its villains to be one-dimensional) threatens them instead with an increased tax; but then, on a whim, he proposes a wager that if they can beat the British in a cricket match, he will remit the tax for 3 years, but if they lose, they will have to pay double - an impossible imposition that would destroy them. The fiery young Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), to the horror of his fellow villagers, accepts the wager. One by one, he wins them over to the necessity of playing and winning this match, and recruits them on to his rag-tag team. The situation looks hopeless for them, since they have just a few months to learn the rules of the game and develop their skills in it. Fortunately, they are helped by Elizabeth, the sister of the wicked captain, who, appalled at her brother's cruelty and inspired by the spirit of fair play, begins to secretly coach the villagers in the finer points of the game.

The momentous contest - a two-day match between the villagers and their colonial oppressors - occupies the whole of the final third of this long film. It is impressively staged, cleverly incorporating almost all the key elements of the game of cricket, including some of the rarer or more subtle quirks of the rules. It probably helps if you know and love the game and can recognise all of these references, but it is by no means essential. The drama and excitement of the various situations comes across powerfully even if the rules of play are a mystery to you. It is perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment that it makes you accept wholeheartedly the villagers' viewpoint - that the climactic cricket match is nothing less than a struggle for their survival. It is also, of course, a potently symbolic assertion of independence from colonial rule. It is a little uncomfortable to have one's own nation portrayed in such unrelentingly negative terms - but I suppose we deserve it. At least we are partly redeemed by the saintly figure of Elizabeth. Brit-haters, however, will no doubt warm to the film more easily than Brits.

All the usual Bollywood elements are here - humour, romance, a bit of skullduggery, a few song & dance numbers - but it's the charm of the principals (Shelley, Khan, and Gracy Singh as the girlfriend who not unnaturally becomes resentful of the growing warmth between Bhuvan and Elizabeth) that holds it all together. It's pretty undemanding stuff, but thoroughly delightful.

And, talking of colonial oppression..... I had wanted to look on YouTube to see if there were some clips from the fantastic cricket match finale I could add to this post...... but we have no YouTube in China at the moment (and, the way things are going, I fear we might never get it back). Dag nabbit!


argonox said...

The L Word is my favorite show, actually. I had no idea that actress had such a diverse oeuvre!

Froog said...

Well, I don't think she's been in all that much. This was probably the first role that got her some attention, and the TV offer came shortly afterwards.

I've never seen The L-Word. I haven't really seen any contemporary TV for 7 or 8 years, since even before I came to China. Do you have any DVDs of it I could borrow?

I have been busy 'Simpsonizing' myself this afternoon.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully-written review, Froog...I am a complete Indiophile and I must see this film.

Having spent an enchanting few evenings down on the beach at Cannanore one Christmas, watching the local Keralan village lads playing cricket (complete with "Owzay!" and all the trimmings, despite a wicket made out of driftwood), I was led to muse how very different things might have been if the French had won the Battle of Plassey. Boules does not have quite the same je ne sais quoi.

Tulsa said...

no youtube in China! I wonder if it's too late to postpone my return flight...

What is the L-Word? I've never even heard of it. It's an American show?

Tulsa said...

I learned to play cricket when I was 10 during a summer visit to London. Some family friends were hosting my little hop across the Atlantic and they had a boy about my age who had no doubt been instructed by his parents to amuse me. He did a great job of it, we played The Terminator video games then ventured into their lovely English backyard and played cricket.

Of course, at the time, cricket was a totally foreign concept for me, having been raised in the States. Later, though, as a young woman competing with the game for attention from a significant other, I truly came to realize the obsession that most Indians/Brits have with the game.

Lagaan was quite the popular film. But for all it's anti-Brit sentiment, I theorize it did better in the UK then it did in the US.

Froog said...

My understanding is that The L Word is a kind of lesbian version of Desperate Housewives.

I wonder what the box office take for Lagaan was. I guess Americans aren't too sympathetic to Brit-bashing either. I don't think the cricket would be too much of a barrier to acceptance by the American audience, but ultimately the film was still too Bollywoody, too darned LONG, to achieve any mainstream success. The arthouse circuitI fear, rarely provides very much income. So, I imagine ventures like this probably gauge their success or failure overseas on DVD sales.

Anonymous said...

did you notice beijing is going to have it's own cricket league?

Anonymous said...

Boggle boggle. It's bad enough that the Australians and Welsh play the Game of Gentlemen...but the CHINESE?!?!

This simply isn't cricket!!!

Froog said...

I hadn't noticed that, no.

Mothman, there is, I think, little chance that the civilizing qualities of the great game are to be revealed to the Chinese just yet. This will certainly be a league for the expats here.

I think someone tried to start a league like this a few years back, but it soon fizzled. It used to be that only the Indian and Pakistani Embassies played.

However, there are many times more foreigners here now, so this time it may take off.

I wish I could play the game!

Anonymous said...

If the Indian and Pakistani embassies are proposing to play then there's sod-all point in the British embassy joining in is there? There is only so much ritual humiliation that a man can take, you know :-) Even a Diplomat...