For every person that has ever had to leave the land of his or her birth to make a life elsewhere, this film is for you. Swades is a must see film that cuts across nationalities, race, colour and creed. If it were not for it’s excessive length (it runs for just over 3 hours) and slow pacing this would have been a 5 star film. Despite starring Shahrukh Khan, India’s number 1 box office star, this film is far removed from the Bollywood melodramas that have been the mainstay of his success thus far. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, whose previous film was the Oscar nominated Lagaan, the success of Swades lies in the fact that at its heart is a simple story, which is well told.
Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan) is a scientist working for NASA on a Global Measurement Precipitation Satellite Program, who left India in pursuit of a better life in America. This he has found in abundance as he has excelled academically and financially, but despite these successes there remains something missing in his life. These feelings reach a high point on the death anniversary of his parents. He specifically misses Kaaveriamma, the Nanny who became a mother to him after his parent’s demise and wonders what became of her. He decides to make it his duty to return to India, find her and bring her back to America with him so that she can enjoy the comforts she never had in her life. However, he is in the throes of an important project and is only given two weeks leave in order to settle his affairs in India.
Once in India he manages to find her living in a small village near New Delhi, a place that is in stark contrast to his life in America. How he adapts to rural life provide many of the films lighter moments. He slowly succumbs to the simplicity of village life and the realisation that this is where he comes from, it his roots and these are his people. Mohan also meets his childhood friend Gita (Gayatri Joshi), now a schoolteacher in the village, and a love blossoms between them. But is there a future for them, when she is devoted to her country and has no intention of leaving and he is intent, despite her objections, to take Kaaveriamma to America with him. How he integrates himself into the village life and traditions and in some way make a difference in their lives becomes the thrust of the film, over and above the initial reason for his coming to India. It is in fact through the wisdom of Kaaveriamma that he discovers his Motherland again. But what he sees saddens him and he sets about to ensure that in some small way he makes a positive impact on the villagers and in so doing empowering them to change their lives for the better.
This is possibly the best Indian film to be released in 2004. It has a story that has universal appeal and situations that many will be able to identify with. Moreover, the direction by Gowariker is brilliant, despite the fact that he could have leant on his editor a bit more. Khan in a role completely different from the norm is amazing. He has never given a more subtle and understated performance, which is worthy of an award. The supporting cast is brilliant and all credit to Gowariker for selecting a cast that, with the exception of Khan, are relative unknowns. Joshi, in particular, makes a commendable debut in the role of Gita. Having to match skills with Khan is no easy task and she acquits herself wonderfully. In fact this type of casting is a masterstroke, because you don’t get the feeling you are watching actors perform. It simply feels that you’ve been allowed to view the life of ordinary people in a typical Indian village. It is that realistic. This realism extends to the production design of Nitin Desai, the stark photography of debutante Mahesh Aney and the depiction of the song sequences. The music by multiple award winner A.R. Rahman is excellent and adds to the overall enjoyment of the film.
However, it’s precisely the realism that might allow the film to falter in the eyes of an audience weaned on the fantasy of Bollywood cinema. My humble plea to those people is not to expect to see your favourite hero Khan in his typical romantic roles. View the film with an open mind and you will be pleasantly surprised.
For those who already have nostalgic feelings about their place of birth, get ready to book your plane tickets, because after seeing Swades you are most certainly going to want to visit your Motherland soon.