“There are entertaining films, there are artistic films, and there are some films that are simply necessary”. - Jack Lemmon
As India enjoys urban development, technological leaps, and the software boom, her villagers still struggle to accumulate basic needs such as education and electricity. “Swades” makes a timely plea to Indians at home and abroad. It serves as a reminder that in order for globalization and its trickle-down theory to work, initiatives also need to begin at the grassroots level. Change initiated by an individual regardless of how small it may be, is a beginning nonetheless. In the case of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s protagonist, Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan), that change emerges through a simple aim of lighting a bulb.
Mohan Bhargava, a scientist working on NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite instinctively decides to return to India to trace his childhood nanny, Kaveriamma (Kishori Balal). Upon tracing her down to Charanpur, a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, Mohan finds himself in a world that stands as the polar opposite to his American lifestyle: one where the residents consider themselves lucky should their kids be able to attend school till the fourth grade or should they receive a few hours of electricity a day. Within this glum paradigm, Gita (Gayatri Joshi) toils hard, teaching at the local school, hoping to create some sort of change for the better. She repeatedly retorts to Mohan’s criticism of the government’s inability to provide for its people by questioning his contribution to this society. Amidst this ideological conflict, Kaveriamma ponders over Mohan’s request that she go to America with him. Gita stands as the lone hindrance, refusing to let go of the lady who was also a mother figure to her. In a desperate attempt to force a solution, Kaveriamma assigns Mohan a simple task - to collect overdue rent from a poor farmer who has leased Gita’s land. The journey alters Mohan’s relationship to this world of passive people who yearn for a leader to initiate a progressive step. Mohan decides to lead these neglected people in a simple battle against disunity and dependency, with the sole aim of powering a light bulb.
After directing the epic-scaled, Academy Award nominated period drama “Lagaan”, Ashutosh Gowarikar settles for simplicity. Shahrukh Khan finally sheds off his star persona, enacting a refreshingly subtle, but powerful performance thanks to the director’s sensitive storytelling. Though he introduces his protagonist as a pragmatist, Gowarikar carefully imbibes Mohan Bhargava with the emotional capacity to act passionately within rational means. As was witnessed in “Lagaan”, Gowarikar extends that rationality and articulation to every supporting character, developing each one with the aim of influencing his protagonist’s goal. One such character, Gita inspires Mohan through her own example, to lead and create change. The serenely beautiful Gayatri Joshi makes a classy and confident debut in a strong, well-written role carrying herself with unassuming grace and poise. Humor is skillfully played with, extracted out of the village-folk’s innocence. Dayashankar Pandey stands out as Mela Ram, the local chef who dreams of opening dhabas on American freeways, but eventually helps Mohan realize that one needs to “light the lamp” in his own house before lighting up the neighbor’s.
Gowarikar’s writing is strongly focused, characterization once again, proving to be his forte. Like “Lagaan”, “Swades” too tells the story of good triumphing over evil. This time however, evil has no face but is rather equated with regressive ideology. The enemy lies within in the form of passive acceptance of injustice by those who suffer it and ignorance by those who witness it. Mohan Bhargava helps Charanpur’s villagers identify this enemy, teaching them to fight it, while at the same time, learning from them, how to fight the enemy within himself. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics effectively ponder over these emotions through powerful musical interludes such as “Yeh Jo Des Hai Mera” and “Pal Pal Hai Bhaari.”
Gowarikar carries forth his penchant for authenticity ably supported by Nitin Desai’s skilful production design. A.R. Rahman’s music further enhances the tone of Gowarikar’s storytelling, characteristically using vocals and classical, Indian instrumentation in the songs and the evocative score. “Swades” however, is not a flawless film. Unlike its predecessor “Lagaan”, it suffers from inconsistent pacing due to amateurish editing by Ballu Saluja. Surprisingly, the film also lacks “Lagaan’s” qualitative presentation and finish, largely because of Mahesh Aney’s average camerawork and a poor postproduction job in the sound department.
Despite the negligible technical flaws, Gowarikar succeeds as a storyteller because his script has its heart just at the right place. A simple but inspirational experience, “Swades” must be seen by every Indian, not to be educated about his or her country’s problems, but rather to be reminded about a responsibility to act and make a difference. Patriotism has a new face.