“It’s not the Olympics where our performance is judged on that day. We’ve already done our best. We’re proud of our effort. Now it’s only a matter of which film gets that extra recognition on that night.”—Gowarikar
The room at this exclusive hotel in the heart of Hollywood’s elite district off Sunset Boulevard is crowded and chaotic. Papers, faxes, and files are strewn everywhere. A computer spits up an ongoing litany of email. A Universal Studios cap and another cap with the USC logo squat amid the clutter on the barely visible desk. Ashutosh Gowarikar tries to field a call on his cell phone while cradling the receiver on the room unit. At least three people are on call waiting. “Thank you so much. We will miss you at tomorrow’s lunch,” he says earnestly into the instrument, sounding very much like a Hollywood director schmoozing a colleague. “Ask them to be there at five,” he says to two people simultaneously… probably journalists like myself. “Tell Mr. …(a very French sounding name) I am going to be late,” he pleads. Gowarikar has just promised to sit down with me for a one-to-one on the eve of the Oscars. “I don’t want to be rushed and stressed. I like to be calm and relaxed for the interview,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Calm. Relaxed. Two words that certainly seem far removed from this location on a typical Los Angeles afternoon.
He looks comfortable in dazzling-white Lucknowi chikan kurta and blue jeans. He has already been to a couple of meetings in this attire. It is under three days to Oscar night and the frenzy is building up. Gowarikar is casually dismissive about his mental state. “We have done our best. We have made a good film that we are all very proud of. Wherever we go in L.A., people come up and recognize the fact that we have been nominated. Being acknowledged as one of the top five films in the world is a huge honor. On the night of the Oscars, one film will get an extra bit of acknowledgement that is all. Of course I am a little nervous. But I am sure I will be fine,” he asserts firmly.
What about the fact that Amelie and No Man’s Land, especially the former has swept American audiences off their feet and surely the 5,700 Academy members who are representative of the whole? “It’s an apples and oranges comparison,” he says. “Remember Amol Palekar’s offbeat art movies andSholay. How can one compare them on an even standing? One kind of person likes Sholay and the other likes non-commercial cinema. It doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other. All five films nominated in the foreign film category are great. The judges have a tough task. I think Lagaan has been a pleasant surprise. Let’s watch and wait.”
Have there been any deals cooking the past few weeks of his stay? “I have received four or five scripts,” Gowarikar admits. “I am looking through them, but it is too early to say anything. At this time Aamir and I have come here for one thing only, and that is Mission Lagaan. We want to ensure that we get the word out and that the movie gets its due. Everything else comes afterwards.”
Who do you want to meet on Oscar night? I ask. Pat comes the reply without the slightest hesitation, “Spielberg, and Coppola.” What about a news item reported in the Economic Times that Spielberg has already seen Lagaan? “Oh, that’s a surprise. Can you email me that?” he says at once. “I really want Steven Speilberg to watch Lagaan,” he says wistfully.
Any superstitions, any little eccentricities he might exercise on the big night or is he very rational and cool? “I am a believer, so I will definitely be saying a prayer. We are very thankful for the wishes and prayers of Indians everywhere. I am set to enjoy the experience whatever happens.”
His eyes dreamily caress a copy of 2001 Space Odyssey resting atop the television set. Do you have a speech prepared, I ask. “No. If I have to go on stage I will just speak from my heart. Because even if I prepare something, I am sure I will forget when I get up on stage. If Lagaan does win I will say what comes naturally.”
“If we win we win, if we don’t we don’t. Its been a good experience just being nominated”— Aamir Khan.
We are on the rooftop, sitting near the pool at this exquisite hotel in the epicenter of Hollywood’s entertainment industry. He is dressed in a pristine white linen shirt, caramel brown leather jacket, whitewashed blue jeans, and a dark denim cap. He has circles under his intense hazel eyes and a cigarette in his hand on this chilly Los Angeles evening. “I am so jet-lagged,” he says wearily referring to his unplanned siesta that has setback a few interviews with a hapless bunch of my colleagues who have been cooling their heels in the hotel lobby since early in the day.
Aamir has just returned after attending his uncle and close mentor Nazir Hussain’s funeral in Mumbai. The trip and his loss have taken a toll on him. He is relatively subdued, but there is that undeniable charisma and charm that attracts curious onlookers and waiting journalists from all over the world. It is appropriate we are meeting on the rooftop of this hotel. For here is a man who is on top in more ways than one—as actor, producer, consummate industry professional and now heightened by a greater cap of glory as an Oscar nominee.
How is he feeling on the eve on the big night just 48 hours away? “Hopeful and optimistic,” he sums up. “Big distribution companies have contacted me and Ashutosh and expressed a desire to work with us. There have been offers for me to work in an English movie, co-production … I am waiting for the 24th to pass because I want to do one thing at a time,” he declares revealing that methodical, precise and deliberate trait his peers wax eloquent about. Spielberg seems to be the one man both Khan and Gowarikar cannot wait to meet on Oscar night. Khan is also looking forward to meeting Harrison Ford. “I am a big fan of his. I like his charisma, I like his voice, I like his acting style,” he says. They have also been invited to the coveted Governor’s Ball after the awards, a place where deals are made and hands shaken for future Oscar-worthy projects.
Referring to the even playing field and the fact that public polls show Amelie, Lagaan, and No Man’s Land in a neck-to-neck race he says, “This year has been a very tough one for the foreign language nominations. All the films are good. If I win I’ll be even more thrilled. I am especially thankful for Lagaan’s support audience. It’s up to the judges now. There are some 5,000 judges and they are required to see all five films in theatrical screenings before they vote. I doubt if all of them have viewed the films, because they simply don’t have the time to go for all the theatrical screenings. What I hear is that around 800 of them make it. Lets see what happens.”
Any time to chill and take in the sights? “No. No time at all. I’ve been really busy with back to back meetings,” he declares grimacing. “That’s why I am really looking forward to relaxing after this with my wife and kids. I am planning to take two months off and just hang out with my family. And I am not telling you where I am going,” he grins with characteristic showbiz wile. “Anyway, this is my fifth or sixth trip to LA so I’ve pretty much done with all my sightseeing,” he says.
What about the night of the 24th? What do you look most forward to, I press. “I look forward to winning of course,” he says with his trademark cheeky smile. And if that doesn’t happen? “If it doesn’t happen … ” he pauses and squints away at a distant speck in the horizon. “Then it doesn’t happen,” he says with a wry laugh adding, “but it’s been a wonderful experience to be here in Hollywood and meet all the film fraternity in this part of the world. They are very much the same. Everyone’s looking for that dream project, everyone is trying to make deals…but there is more professionalism.”
On a somber personal note he adds ruefully, “I would have dearly loved it if my uncle had been there with me to share the experience whether I won or not. And now that he is not there anymore my excitement about this has dissipated somewhat.”
What about pressure and public statements about their chances for victory? Sunil Dutt has made a public statement about his gut feelings on Lagaan’s Oscar win. Other industry seniors have also gone on record expressing unbridled optimism, some even going so far as to christen India “the land of Lagaan.” Does that not weigh as a terrible burden? “I am thankful for their support and sentiments. I do feel scared that everyone back home is so confident about our chances of winning and that they would be very disappointed if we didn’t.” He takes a deep breath and says, “I want to tell them it is a great thing just to have come this far.”