Phil Konstantin's Review of "Whale Rider" & "Lagaan."

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Whale Rider & Lagaan

I wrote this review in January 2004.

Since I haven’t seen any American Indian movies lately, I decided to expand the category a bit. I’ll be looking at two movies this month. One involves indigenous people, the other features Indians.

"Whale Rider" came out in 2002. According to legend, the founding father, Paikea arrived in Aotearoa (“The Land of The Long White Cloud” or New Zealand) riding on the back of a whale. In honor of this feat, each tribal chief is given the name Paikea at birth. Some experts say the Maori arrived on their island around 1350.

Koro is now the trial chief. He is very traditional. Koro is worried about the direction Maori society is taking. His first born son, Porourangi, is an artist. Porourangi understands his father’s concerns, but, he feels burdened by the weight of the responsibility of having to follow in Koro’s footsteps. Porourangi’s wife dies giving birth to their twin boy and girl. The boy dies, as well. Koro is so devastated by the death of the first-born boy that he has difficulty even acknowledging the girl. Porourangi reacts to his father’s scorn by naming his daughter Paikea. This affront to tradition drives a wedge between father and son. "Whale Rider" is the story of this Maori girl trying to come to grips with her destiny.

Porourangi’s problems with his father, and his sorrow over the loss of his wife and son cause him to leave. He becomes a successful artist abroad. Paikea grows up living with her grandparents. Koro grows to love his granddaughter deeply. Paikea loves her grandfather with a deep intensity. She shares his faith in the old ways.

Paikea wishes to participate fully in Maori society. Unfortunately, many of the old ways limit what a woman can do. It is this conflict that is the driving force of the story. Koro believes there is a proper place for things in his society. Paikea is eleven when Koro learns that his son has no plans to give him a grandson. Koro decides to train the other first-born young men in the ancient ways. Paikea wants to participate in the training. Paikea believes she should be able to do those things that she is capable of doing. The spirits within her motivates Paikea, and she will not take “No” for an answer.

This clash is between two people who both honor the old ways. They just disagree on how they should be implemented. It is a multi-layer conflict involving what both Koro and Paikea want, what they have, and what they believe their people need.

This is a beautifully crafted film. You should be moved by the honesty of the characters. The acting is excellent. The scenery is gorgeous. The movie was shot in the exact spot where the legendary Paikea came ashore. Whale Rider’s director Niki Caro said that all of the people in the movie who are not lead characters are the descendents of Paikea.

"Whale Rider" is based on the book of the same name by Maori author Witi Ihimaera.

Anyone who has ever considered the problems that American Indian nations face regarding tradition verses modernity, or a culture in transition, will find a common theme in this movie.

I highly recommend it. You can find it listed on my store page at , on Netflix, and in most good video rental stores.


We have all heard the expression that we aren’t Indians, because Indians come from India. So, in that vein, I have reviewed a movie made in India: "Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India."

Lagaan means Tax, and the movie revolves around the payment of a tax. The story is pretty simple. The time is 1893. The setting is the small agricultural village of Champaner. The province is ruled by a native Raja (a kind of prince). The British rule India. The British tell the Rajas that they will protect them from each other. For this service, they require a tax, or Lagaan. The Raja must pass this tax along to the farmers in his province as a fixed amount of grain. It is a month into the rainy season, and it has not rained, yet. The previous year, the crop yield was also bad. In fact, the Raja convinced the British to only take half of their usual Lagaan. The local British commander, Captain Andrew Russell is an arrogant, prig. He lords his position over the Indians whenever he gets the chance. A local man, named Bhuvan, draws the Captain’s ire. The Captain decides the Lagaan must be twice its normal level because of last year’s reduction. Since the rains have not come, the farmers cannot pay such an amount. They appeal to the Raja to ask the British for a continued reduction because of the drought. The assembled group of farmers tries to see the Raja. They have to wait until he is finished watching the British play cricket. The farmers are a bit baffled with the game, until one of them reminds them that it is similar to a child’s game they once played. Captain Russell overhears Bhuvan laughing about how silly the game looks. When the game is over, the farmers approach the Raja and the Captain. They plead their case for a reduction, instead of a doubling of the tax.. The Captain refuses. Seeing Bhuvan, the Captain comes up with a proposal. He will cancel the tax for three years, for the entire province, if the farmers can beat the British at this “silly game.” However, if the farmers lose, they must pay triple the normal tax. The Captain asks Bhuvan if he will accept the bet. The farmers ask the Raja to intervene. The Captain tells them Bhuvan must decide for them all. Despite the multitude’s pleas to the contrary, Bhuvan accepts the bet. The rest of the movie is about how Bhuvan tries to get the support of the villagers, create a team, and to beat the British. Simple, right?

The 3 hour 44 minute, epic Lagaan is the “Gone With The Wind” of Indian cinema. As far as I know, it remains the most expensive movie ever produced in India’s prolific Bollywood. The movie is an amazing blend of color, sights and sounds. This movie has it all. There are fighting neighbors, racial injustice, revenge, treachery, religious conflicts, militancy, tradition, arrogance, humility, cowards, heroes, braggers, bashfulness, fortune tellers, young lovers, jealousy, class warfare, cruelty, kindness, and more...all in this little village. Not only that, they all can sing and dance. There are five musical numbers with some very catchy tunes.

There is one problem for the average English-speaking viewer. The movie is in Hindu. There are English captions, though.

I first saw this movie about a year ago on cable TV. Otherwise, I might never have found it. I jokingly call it "Dances With Wolves” meets Burt Reynold’s “The Longest Yard."

I also give this movie a great big thumbs up. You can find it listed on my store page at , and on Netflix. You will may not be able to find it in many video rental stores.

You can buy a copy of this movie, through the links below. Click on the title for information, click on "Buy" to order a copy.

Click on one of the underlined phrases below to go to that page.

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