Swades is a simple story that unfolds in a slow and simple manner. A tale of a successful NRI employed at NASA who returns to a small, backward village in Uttar Pradesh to collect his nanny and take her with him to America. But here, he discovers two things that hold him back: love, and a universal truth: everyone can make a difference.
Swades begs to be seen by the entire cross section of society; in fact, all society should watch it. It is possibly the grandest film with a social cause and a clear purpose: to use the medium of popular entertainment to try and change mindsets. And we’re not only talking about rural India here. With this film, Ashutosh Gowariker, like his protagonist, is a lone man trying to make a difference. He attempts to do this with stars, songs and other such Bollywood apparatus in a one-of-a-kind experiment in jugglery. And boy, does he pull it off!
The plot of the film is merely a device that Gowariker’s uses to make his statement. Even before the opening titles, you have a fair idea of how the story is going to end. But Gowariker handles the film like a fencer his foil: with precision and authority, deftly hitting all the marks. The high points are plenty and each one puts a lump in your throat. The songs in the first half; Mohan’s initial meetings with the secondary characters of the film; the moment he decides to discard his mineral water in exchange for a 25p kulhad of water obtained from questionable sources (thereby providing a perfectly timed metaphor of his personal thought process); the sequence in which he completes the micro-hydro-electric plant (especially the fixing of the glitch and reaction of the old woman once the bulb is switched on); his adaptable approach to different people and the evolution of their characters are examples of the scores of moments that make the film. The love story is delicately handled and pleasantly surprising in the scene where Geeta tells Mohan she is falling in love with him.
But three and a half hours is long for any story in this medium, and Swades has its fair share of problems. The points about education, rural development, caste-ism and child-marriage that Mohan raises get repetitive and begin to sound preachy, much like a biased documentary. And while this serves the purpose of the film (as a social message), it takes away from the film itself (as a work of art). For example, Mohan’s efforts to round up new admissions to Geeta’s school fizzles out and there is no clear closure of that track. Instead of the frenetic simultaneous efforts to solve a multitude of problems, perhaps Khan’s character could’ve reached breaking point by after being constantly affected by all around him and only then delving into the construction of the electric plant: which would form the climactic core of the film. Yet, this can only be an opinion as there is nothing wrong with Gowariker’s approach given his intention.
It can be no coincidence that Shah Rukh Khan’s most endearing performance comes from a film that is socially relevant and most unlike anything else he has done. It is tempting to believe that Khan is delivering by simply underplaying and cutting out being Shah Rukh Khan as he is in his copious body of work, but this is not true. This is Shah Rukh Khan achieving his potential. Now hopefully the actor, who has openly resigned himself to acting in films for his clique (read Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, and Farah Khan) after giving every kind of popcorn entertainer a shot, will once again begin to experiment with cinema based on fresh themes to help him further establish himself as an all time great.
Gayatri Joshi as the opposite lead is pretty and is given ample space to make her mark in her debut film. Unfortunately, she falls short when it matters most: in the sequence as she bids Mohan farewell and hopes against hope that he turns back. But the supporting performances are very credible. Gowariker’s astute casting asures wonderful performances from the postman cum wrestling enthusiast (Rajesh Vivek), the ambitious Dalit cook (Dayashanker Pandey) and the circumspect Panchayat team. Kishori Ballal plays her part as Mohan’s cute nanny calmly and sensibly, restraining from drawing too much attention despite her role being the central device of the plot.
Given the theme of the film, it is pointless to critique the technical aspects. Here is a film where the cinematography (banal framing, overused jib shots and flat lighting), sound (easily recognizable sync sound, ordinary use of SFX), special effects (tacky), and reverse-telecined video material (awful) are serviceable at best; but then when you are catering to the lowest common denominator, gloss is the last thing on your mind.
AR Rahman’s music is outstanding. The background score is the pulse of the film and effectively captures the mood of the moment every single time. The songs are vintage Rahman and well spread through the film, with Gowariker attempting to make them as incidental as possible. Special mentions for Yuhin Chala Chal Rahi, Yeh Tara and the Swades title song. The picturizations could’ve been more imaginative and as is usual for any Bollywood film with more than two songs, most of them could’ve been completely omitted.
Swades is an obvious reflection of a sentiment close to Ashutosh Gowariker’s heart and his want to use the medium for his message. Despite Lagaan’s critical international success and recognition and several subsequent Hollywood offers, Gowariker chose to leverage his standing to make a relevant film that attempts to make a difference; to sincerely question the arcane ideologies that dictate norm. The endeavor is noble and significant. To this, we doff our hats.
Hindi, Drama, Color