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Sunday, Mar 03, 2002

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A `golden' push for Indian cinema

Rina Chandran

A heady run... Aamir Khan with Gracy Singh in Lagaan.

NEW YORK, March 2

WHO could have known that the lyrics a fresh-faced Aamir Khan mouthed in his first film would prove prophetic: "Papa kehte hain bada naam karega, beta hamara aisa kaam karega..."

He's made a big name all right, not just for himself but for India and Indian cinema as well. Earlier this month, Lagaan, the film he produced and starred in, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It is only the third Indian film, after Mother India (1957) and Salaam Bombay (1988), to have got the nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"To see the name of the film and actually hear it being nominated was very satisfying," said Aamir, who was in Manhattan recently en route to Los Angeles to work on the "second phase" of the campaign promoting the film. "In the first part of the campaign, we showed the film to as many people as possible and let it speak for itself," he told Business Line, looking relaxed in cargo pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt. "This phase too, that's what we'll do."

Aamir watched the announcement of the 74th Academy Award nominations from home, along with his wife, Reena, and some members of the cast and crew of Lagaan, he said. Earlier, Reena's friend had called to say that BBC News had already announced Lagaan's nomination. Everyone started screaming and shouting, he said, except himself. "I told them to hang on because I wanted to make sure," he said, smiling at the memory. "I didn't want to go by just a phone call someone made, I wanted to see it for myself."

It was a while before everyone calmed down, but it was worth the wait: Lagaan was the third film to be announced, bang between Amelie (France), Elling (Norway), No Man's Land (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Son of the Bride (Argentina). "It was great," he said.

Of the other nominees, Aamir has only seen the highly popular Amelie. "I think it's a wonderful film, I really enjoyed watching it," he said.

Naturally a movie buff, Aamir likes watching films when he visits America and said he would like to see the other Foreign Film nominations, but doubts he will have the time.

For Lagaan, though, the time is right. Aamir's decision to produce the film, made right after he agreed to act in it because he knew it was not the kind of film that many producers would want to invest in, has paid off despite initial scepticism about its theme and scale.

"This is a more appropriate time for mainstream Indian cinema to make its presence felt," he said. "There's a lot of curiosity about Indian cinema, and people all over the world are getting to know more about it."

This wasn't the case say 50 years ago, when Mother India was nominated. But Indian cinema has come a long way since then, gaining popularity in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Fiji and Russia. "Indian cinema is popular in these places among even the locals, not just the Indians there," Aamir said. "Even though they don't all follow the language, there is a big following for Indian cinema." With the attention Lagaan is receiving, there is curiosity among people in the US, the UK and Australia also. "With Lagaan reaching where it has, it has only enhanced that curiosity," Aamir said. "And if we go on to win, that effect will only multiply. It's a great opportunity for Indian cinema."

Indeed, Lagaan is an example of a truly mainstream Indian film, long criticised for its improbable song-and-dance sequences, predictable storylines and even its length, that is endearing itself to international audiences. "Lagaan's success indicates that people all over the world are enjoying and accepting its distinct Indian form," Aamir said, adding that audiences and the media at film festivals from Europe to Toronto to Los Angeles have also been fascinated by the film. "We would have imagined that they wouldn't like the songs, but they loved the songs and dances, the clothes, the culture and the emotional element," he said. "A standard question is: `Where can we buy the music?' "

Aamir has struck a deal with Sony Pictures Classics to distribute Lagaan in North America from May. Sony Classics, which also distributed the Argentine nominee, was the North American distributor for the winner last year, the Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Insisting that he felt no different coming to America as an Academy Award nominee, Aamir was also very matter-of-fact about the increased scrutiny of Muslim and, even South Asian, men in airports following September 11. "It's a part of life since we live in a world where terrorism has become such a big issue," he said. "We face terrorism from a particular group now, but I or the rest of the world don't think all Muslims are terrorists," said Khan, who visited Ground Zero during his visit to New York in December. "If someone with the surname Khan gets checked twice before getting on to a flight and if my bags get checked twice, I don't think that's unreasonable or difficult to deal with," he said.

The actor, who most recently slipped convincingly from playing a firebrand villager in the pre-Independence era to a hip, urban youth with a cosmopolitan sensibility in Dil Chaahta Hai, counts Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin, Andaaaz Apna Apna, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Rangeela, Raja Hindustani, Sarfarosh, Lagaan and Dil Chaahta Hai among his milestones movies.

And, despite his obvious excitement over the Oscar nomination, he said he had not changed his mind about most Indian awards and award ceremonies. "They have a lot of inconsistencies and my experience with them has been rather unpleasant, so I keep away from most of them," he said. "The only award that I recognise is the national award."

The Academy Awards, he said, are different in that the format of voting by the Academy's members who are filmmakers, technicians, actors and other creative people, is more complex. "With so many people involved it's rather difficult to influence the vote in a particular direction," Aamir said.

"Just the fact that we've been nominated, without a huge studio backing us at that point of time, is an indication that this was not an issue for the members."

Come March 24, Aamir (who will wear "something Indian") and Ashutosh Gowariker, who as director will receive the award if Lagaan gets the vote, will find out just what direction the Academy members took. Even if they go home without the little gold man, Aamir would have realised his ambition: "The importance of the Oscar is the opportunity it gives Lagaan to get a world audience interested in seeing the film and, through Lagaan, interested in mainstream Indian cinema."

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