Lagaan 20, Oscars, Tuxedo And I

Mayank Chhaya-

It began with renting a tuxedo, which sounds horrible even as I write it. But renting a tux is a thing in America because buying a good tux is expensive. How good my tuxedo must have been can be gauged from the fact that I paid $200 for a day. Yes, in those days—and I am talking 2002—I used to have money.


Mayank Chhaya

For the record, I can’t stand tuxedos on me. I look like an emaciated clown. Only Sean Connery and Daniel Craig should be allowed to wear tuxedos. The rest of us should just stand on the sidelines and wildly cheer as the two walk along. But I digress.


I did consider buying a tuxedo rather than renting it but then reasoned that I would never wear it again. It was a one-time affair, the affair being the 74th annual Academy Awards which I was reporting for the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS). There was a specific reason for covering that particular one on March 24, 2002. Aamir Khan’s and Ashutosh Gowarikar’s ‘Lagaan’ had been nominated in the best Foreign Language Film category. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the movie’s release in 2001.


It was my first and only Oscars attendance even though I could have attended it every year as a journalist. I did not because penury began to set in gradually and a tuxedo seemed to slip away, even a rented one. But I digress.


I remember feeling particularly uncomfortable in my tuxedo in Los Angeles’s heat. Add to that I had to lug my laptop to file a story or two whether or not ‘Lagaan’ won. As an accredited journalist I had access to both the Interview section as were as the Bleacher section. We were not invited inside the main hall where the actual ceremony took place. Those who rented tuxedos did not make the cut.


The global media were in a special hall where the ceremony was live cast on a big screen. The tradition at the Oscars is that those who win are brought to the media enclosure for interviews.


There was some mild curiosity about ‘Lagaan’ among some American journalists and since I looked recognizably Indian, notwithstanding my sharply cut tux, some of them did engage me in a polite chitchat about the movie. Some of them asked me if I thought ‘Lagaan’ would win. I said no for the simple reason that it demanded too much attention of the Academy members who vote. At the running time of three hours and forty-five minutes it was just too much even for the “exotica” hungry Hollywood types. I heard some journalists comment that ‘Lagaan’ would have been better off as a mini-TV series given its length.


I do remember having done a couple of stories in the run-up to the Oscars about the amount of schmoozing needed to get the Academy members to watch your movies, especially if you are a foreign filmmaker in a foreign language. Aamir Khan and Ashutosh Gowarikar were understandably not well-versed with Hollywood schmoozing. “Praaji tussi tope ho,” is not what worked there as it used in Hindi cinema of yore.


There was some disappointment that ‘Lagaan’ was beaten by ‘No Man’s Land’ by Danis Tanović. It was obvious to me that ‘Lagaan’ was too much color and melodrama overload for the Academy members. Any hope that the Indians taking on cruel British colonizers may resonate with the Americans naturally drawn to the underdog was neutralized by the sheer toomuchness (Not a word but coined right here) of everything.


The moment the winner was declared I remember having instantly gotten rid of my clownish bowtie and put it in my pocket.


The next day when I went to return the tuxedo in Fremont where I had rented it from, the shop owner asked me if the movie I was attending the Oscars for won. (I had told him why I needed to the tux.) I said it did not. Out of both grace and pity, he gave a 25-dollar discount.


It felt like “Lagaan maaf.”