(Welcome to A Passage to India, a new series where we explore great works from all over South Asia for unacquainted viewers, all of them available to stream.)
Nagraj Popatrao Manjule seems like a born filmmaker, though he only gravitated towards the profession in his early thirties. His reason, in part, was to reflect his own experiences, those oft unaddressed by the Indian mainstream. His 2011 short Pistulya, for instance, focuses on a child from a Dalit family — a community frequently oppressed within India’s long-standing caste hegemony — in a film about hoping and, in some small ways, fighting for an education. This story of searching for a better life, while exposing the perils of rigid social hierarchy, lends its DNA to Manjule’s 2014 debut feature, the Marathi-language Fandry, a sublime, hard-hitting tale of longing and circumstance.
In Fandry, Manjule crafts, with every tool at his disposal, what may well be one of the best-directed first features in recent memory. A soulful portrait of character, place and memory, told from the lens of a tumultuous childhood. It builds, incisively, to a stunning, saddening and perhaps even enraging climax, holding accountable those who would uphold the perceived normality of caste oppression. On its way to this potent destination, it takes us on an intimate journey alongside its thirteen-year-old protagonist, Jambhuvant Kachru Mane, AKA Jabya (Somnath Awghade), drawing influence from the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist staple Ladri di biciclette, though maintaining a rhythmic, pulsating energy unique to India’s contemporary indie scene. There is, quite simply, nothing like it.
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(Welcome to A Passage to India, a new series where we explore great works from all over South Asia for unacquainted viewers. In this edition: we take a look at India’s last Oscar-nominated film, the cricket-and-colonialism musical Lagaan.)
Few theatrical experiences compare to Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan, which, in the summer of 2001, had audiences cheering in cinemas as if they were watching a sporting event live in a stadium. A film that earns its mammoth 220-minute runtime, the period epic plays like a film by David Lean — fitting, given the title of this new /Film series — fine-tuned for sensibilities of the mainstream Indian audience. It’s a meticulously calculated piece, yet one that flows naturally, springing as if fully formed from the Earth, grounding musical formalism in folk celebration while telling a tale of historical fantasy.
Lagaan brings together three distinct pseudo-religious Indian institutions: the mainstream Hindi (or “Bollywood”) musical, the passionately revered sport of Cricket, and the oft-deified Indian independence movement, resulting in a potent cinematic nexus. Set in the village of Champaner in 1893, several decades prior to India’s freedom from the British, the film tells of a heightened confrontation between poor villagers under Colonial boot-heels, and the officers who torment them — verbally, physically and financially. The village hasn’t seen rainfall for several seasons. Its downtrodden farmers, led by cocksure protector Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) are desperate to be relieved of their taxes to the Crown, which have been doubled this year on a whim. They’re presented with an opportunity when one Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne of Arrow fame) arrogantly challenges them to a game of Cricket, a sport with which they’re unfamiliar.
Should the villagers win, they won’t have to pay a single grain of tax, or “lagaan,” for three whole years. Should they lose however, they’ll have to pay the usual tax three times over. “Triple tax,” as Russell enunciates in the Queen’s, crossing his “T”s with his sharp tongue. Or “Teen goonah lagan” as he spits, with venom, in his uncouth, anglicized Hindi.
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