Saturday, August 05, 2006

Swades (2004)

Swades (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004)
English Title: Our Country

Almost every thinktank, hospital, educational facility, technical departments of huge corporations would have a non-resident Indian (NRI) as employee, either as a technical expert or specialist. Indians have migrated out of their nation with the hopes of finding better opportunities for living, education, or social acceptance. It is actually not endemic to India, but to almost every nation that has suffered poverty and severe social inequalities. Families would migrate all over the world to find immediate solutions to a more impending concern: which is their very own comfort, and their children's future. Yet as the title song of the Ashutosh Gowariker's follow-up to the critically acclaimed cricket epic Lagaan chants: an invisible bond between oneself and one's country will keep you coming back. Such is the dilemma of Swades protagonist who has achieved much recognition and fulfillment abroad, but has fallen in love with the land he left more than a decade ago.

Mohan Bhargav (Shahrukh Khan) is the film's protagonist, a technical expert for NASA who is initiating a project involving launching a satellite that will measure global precipitation. On the day of the project's press conference, he suddenly feels the urge to visit India and bring back his beloved nanny and surrogate mother Kaveri (Kishori Balal) to America and take care of her. He returns to India and discovers that Kaveri was taken out of the old folks' home and brought to a remote village. He rents a station wagon and travels to the remote village. There, he falls in love with an independent, strong-willed school teacher Gita (Gayatri Joshi), while slowly nurturing a growing love for the village's simple life and adherence to tradition.

Swades has a clear message. It works best as a letter to each and every Indian to nurture a love for the country they have conveniently left. It also works as a caution to all Indians that there are traditions that delay growth, and that mere reliance on one's age-old traditions and culture is a mere excuse to keep one's attention to the country's more pressing problems. Of course, much of what has been said here is spoken directly by the characters in the film, which is one problem that keeps me from completely falling in love with the film: it is preachy and repetitive in this insistence. Such preachiness may have been the result of Gowariker's clear passions at work. Here, Gowariker shows much more personality, much more individuality than the technical expertise which he showcased in Lagaan.

Lagaan is a much-lauded film, mostly because it was able to provide entertainment from the impossibly complex sport of cricket, complicated with Bollywood-type song numbers and blatant melodrama. Swades is much more personal I think, which might impede appreciation. The song numbers a lot more meaningful and more incidental to the plot, and the melodrama more grounded on humanism than on narrative romanticism. What Swades lacks is technical polish. The film tends to slowdown, something I rarely felt in Lagaan's more than three hours running time.

There are several scenes of note here, but one scene, actually a song number, struck an emotional cord with me. The scene opens with a film being shown in the village center. The brahmin and the rich people on the correct side of the white cloth used as a screen, and the less privileged and the people of lower caste, on the wrong side of the cloth, seeing the movie in mirror image. The power dies, and the song number begins, about the stars and how a star may be brilliant in its lonesome, but create a clear picture when together. The cloth is torn down by the protagonist who dances, in true Hollywood fashion, with the village children who discard the traditional caste system. It is beautiful despite the obvious kitsch. There are several other scenes that simply and directly portray India's plight, and numerous scenes that showcase the land and more imporantly, the people's beauty. After three and so hours of Gowariker's filmmaking, there is a clear acknowledgment that Swades is not merely entertainment fare, it is a love song to a nation most of its citizens are willing to give up for personal comforts.


etu said...

This may be the most on-the-mark review of Swades I've read.

The recreational vehicle with bed and shower that Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan) rents to drive to the village represents how Westernized he's become. Eventually, he sleeps on a hammock, drinks and bathes in the local water, etc.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks etu, both for the acknowledgement and the insight.