First things first - as India┬┤s official entry for the 2005 Academy Awards, director Sandeep Sawant┬┤s "Shwaas" does not stand a chance. The film is far too slow and sentimental for an international audience; even the most open-minded Western viewers will find it hard to identify with this tale of futile resistance to modern medicine, and will most likely see it as more affected than authentic.
In fact, reviews in American publications have already been less than glowing. Ben Kenigsberg of The Village Voice ended his scathing critique with the accusation, "Shwaas milks every moment of surgical prep for maximum bathos." And even A.O. Scott of The New York Times, a periodical ordinarily liberal with its praise for kitschy Bollywood productions, attempted to appreciate the film but admitted that it "...becomes tedious after a while," and expressed a bit of puzzlement as to why its been showered with so many glowing reviews and awards in India.
That said, "Shwaas," is a film that should, has, and will continue to win acclaim from Indian critics and audiences. It represents a triumph of clean, straight storytelling unlike that witnessed in mainstream commercial Indian films. Credit for that goes, in large part, to the fact that "Shwaas" is a small, independent, Marathi-language film; any Bollywood director would have completely mangled this story into an overblown melodrama.
Mr. Sawant shows great restraint and respect for his subject in keeping his film simple, and letting his story┬┤s situations speak for themselves. A confused, scared grandfather (Arun Nalawade) from a small village brings his grandson, Parasha, (Ashwin Chitale, in a performance that won a National Award) to the big city for an eye-exam. The child┬┤s vision has been suffering as of late; he sees double, and it┬┤s thrown off his balance. The vision impairment has slowly been getting in the way of child┬┤s everyday life - he can┬┤t play with other kids, go to school, etc.
The grandfather finally manages to get a doctor (Sandeep Kulkarni) in the city to perform an eye-exam on Parasha. The results are unexpectedly devastating; Parasha is diagnosed with a rare cancer of the eye that must be operated on immediately in order to save the child┬┤s life - but the operation involves surgically removing both of the child┬┤s eyes.
With that discovery, the second act begins. The grandfather, entirely unfamiliar with modern medicine, initially doubts the accuracy of the results. He resists signing up for the operation. A social worker (Amruta Subhash) finally convinces him that the operation has to take place, but then a host of other obstacles present themselves. How does one convince a child┬┤s unassuming mother that her son┬┤s eyes must be removed to save his life? How does one explain such a thing to the child himself?
Such questions are unhurriedly explored as the film reluctantly inches towards its unfortunate, inevitable climax. The pace of the film reflects the grandfather┬┤s internal struggle between the haste and hectic pace of the present - in which decisions need to made and actions must be taken soon - and the haunting, melancholy significance of the serene past - where Parasha enjoyed a carefree, charmed life in the village. The audience gets long, leisurely flashbacks to Parasha┬┤s time in the village - and as beautiful as that imagery is, it ultimately serves only as a stark reminder of the sights that the poor boy will never see again.
The film┬┤s conclusion, which packs something of a surprise, is as hopeful and upbeat as the film can muster - and is worth watching for. Audiences are treated to a brief respite from the overall melancholia, and a number of new, intersting questions are raised. Like Kurosawa┬┤s "Ikiru," (1952) to which this film bears more than a passing resemblance, "Shwaas" stands out because of the questions it raises, and the manner in which it leaves it up to audiences to find answers for themselves.
Western critics have lambasted the film for its lack of creditable conflict; the choice to go through with the operation, they charge, should have been natural. The preparation for the operation should not have been so painstakingly presented. What these critics have failed to see is that these details (modern medicine, surgical prep) are as outlandish and intimidating to the villagers in the film as they are innocuous and ordinary to Westerners. For the protagonists of the film, the city is a surrealist nightmare and the surgical procedures are more menacing and frightening than anything else.
The film is conscious of this theme throughout; the doctor and social worker repeatedly readjust their approaches to better suit the sentimentality and distrust of Parasha and his grandfather. In many ways, the film is as much about the increasing incompatibility between India┬┤s cities and villages as it is about Parasha┬┤s dilemma. In a quiet, understated way, Sawant┬┤s film makes a the case that a stronger effort must be made to instill compassion and care into the medical bureaucracy of Indian urban centres.
Imagine how such a theme would be conveyed in the average Bollywood production. A Sunny Deol, a Sanjay Dutt, or, if the banner were big enough, an Amitabh Bachchan would stand in a crowded hospital lobby, carrying the inflicted child. Eyes glaring, nostrils flaring, they would shake their fists in the air and threaten to tear apart the entire hospital if their child wasn┬┤t treated immediately.
Thankfully, both the situations and performances in "Shwaas" are far more subtle and real. Mr. Sawant extracts very subdued, restrained, and genuine peformances from everyone in the cast. Ashwin Chitale, as Parasha, proves that there was no better candidate for his National Award. More often than not, child actors are "excusable;" audiences accept that they must look past the inability of the young performer in order to enjoy the greater film. In "Shwaas," the opposite is true. Chitale is the heart and soul of this film; in a film that┬┤s all about pathos, the young actor embodies it. Arun Nalawade does a fantastic job as the perturbed grandfather, Sandeep Kulkarni brims with conviction as the doctor, and Amruta Subhash convinces us of genuine concern as the empathetic social worker.
"Shwaas" is far from a perfect film; the filmmakers┬┤ shortcomings, in fact, are quite glaring in some areas. The pace of the film slows a bit too much as the third act unfolds. The score, with its heavy use of 80┬┤s synthesizers, is garish to a nearly offensive extent. And the small budget often becomes apparent; production values aren┬┤t nearly as consistent in this film as they are in larger productions in India and abroad. But these flaws are minor given the film┬┤s ccomplishments. "Shwaas" is a nothing short of a must-see because of its effortless telling of a touching, thought-provoking, true story*.
* - The events of this film are based on a true story that occurred in Pune in 1992.