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Feature-length documentary makes it to big screen

By Frederick Noronha, IANS

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Download Lagaan WallpapersComing with a huge price tag, it must be one of India's unusual documentaries. But "Chale Chalo... The Lunacy of Film-Making" is one of the few to actually reach the big screen.

This 'film about a film' screened at the ongoing 35th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) explores the untold story behind the making of the high-profile Indian nominee to the Oscars, "Laagan: Once Upon A Time in India" -- the Bollywood sports action-romance-musical film released in 2001.

"In July this year, it became the first Indian documentary to get a theatrical release," Mumbai-based lawyer-turned-director Satyajit Bhatkal, 40, told IANS here.

So far it has been released in theatres in Mumbai and Pune and is expected to be released in Delhi and Kolkata early next year, he said.

"Laagan" itself is the story of how people of a small village in Victorian India stake their future on a game of cricket -- a game they don't even know
to play -- against their exploitative British rulers.

In this near-four-hour predictable formula film, the cricket match runs 80
minutes of screen time. The story was based in Champaner, a village supposedly located in an area that is today's Madhya Pradesh. The film was shot in the torrid deserts of Bhuj (Gujarat) and depicts the harsh drought conditions.

But this is not a conventional making-of-a-film documentary. It tells of the desperate struggle to put together an ambitious film -- which some fans later thought actually had chances of an Oscar.

"Chale Chalo..." does not use a single shot from the final cut of "Laagan".

Struggling with the project, Bhatkal sometimes casts himself in the story, writing to his Mumbai-based wife Swati how grim things are over a film that seems to be an epic struggle to complete.

Download Lagaan WallpapersHandsome producer-actor Aamir Khan narrates how he tries to get a cast that cannot hold a bat straight to 'win' a cricket match, and the strains of managing an India-Britain cross-cultural team.

Mid-way through the film, two British stars even opted for a traditional Hindu marriage. The story of colonial bitterness apart, both the 'teams' actually got on amicably some five decades after Independence, as Bhatkal's
documentary shows.

Lagaan's story is set in British India of the 1890s, when the colonial ruler extorts taxes known as 'lagaan' through the local Rajahs. In return, the
British use their powerful military to keep the peace.

In turn, the Rajahs pass on the tax burden to the poor farmers, wilting under a lengthy drought. Only youthful Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) is willing to stand up.

Captain Andrew Russel (Paul Blackthorne) doubles the 'lagaan' on Rajah Puran Singh (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who passes on the burden to the farmers.
Champaner protests. Captain Russel challenges the people to a cricket duel, which if the villagers won means no 'lagaan' for three years. If the Indians lost, the tax would be tripled.

The catch is simply this: the villagers don't know how to play cricket.

This film, which goes under the international name of "Land Tax", made it big in India in recent years. Besides a nationalistically-tinged theme,
it also touches on cricket, still the passion in many parts of the country.

To maintain their sanity amidst harsh conditions while shooting, the 142-minute film tells how all kinds of silly games -- and even a cricket match that the British actually won -- are played.

Download Lagaan WallpapersIFFI audiences applauded as the villagers "punished" the English bowlers -- never mind that Bhatkal's documentary shows it all on how this was achieved, largely through camera control.

"We spent a budget of Rs.10 million," said Bhatkal. "It's an expensive film, certainly. But money is often recovered from serial satellite rights. (Producer) Aamir (Khan) is negotiating this."

He politely disagrees with the view that "Chale Chalo..." kind of rides piggy-back on the fame of "Lagaan". "That's an opinion," he said.

On the potential of documentary market in India, he said: "Surely, the market is growing. It's seriously under-tapped."

His next plans include a "serious television serial" which he hopes to start shooting by February 2005, though Bhatkal was unwilling to offer details just yet.


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