Sunday, January 16, 2005

Swades: We The People 

Once again, after Lagaan, Ashutosh Gowarikar attempts a film that does not fall under any current trend or set formula. Swades: We The People has that quality rare for commercial cinema –it has a point of view, a straightforward message and a format as realistic as possible within the constraints imposed on mainstream films. It is a well-intentioned film, has its heart in the right place, waves the right flags, and it is heartbreaking to see it fail in more ways than it succeeds.

Gowarikar sets his film in rural India and resists the picture postcard village of and the clichéd imagery of ‘Bollywood’ – no village belles swaying by the well, no coordinated dancing in the fields.

But then the realism of Swades is just halfway there—woefully short on research, authenticity, attention to detail or understanding of ground realities in Uttar Pradesh, where it is set.

So, NASA scientist Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), gets sudden guilt pangs for neglecting his childhood nanny for 12 years, so on an impulse flies to India and drives in a caravan straight to fictional UP village of Charanpur.

There lives Kaveri Amma (Kishori Ballal) with stern young school teacher Geeta (Gayatri Joshi) and her kid brother (Smit Seth). A few jokey moments (very unfunny encounters with a couple of village comedians), Mohan is exposed to the ugly side of this bucolic paradise.

Electricity supply is erratic, there is one phone in the post office, casteism prevents lower caste kids from attending Geeta’s school and a stuffy Panchayat made up of Brahmins talking “sanskar and parampara” with a sole token Muslim woman, sneer at Mohan’s foreign ways.

But having given a very superficial view of the problems besetting Charanpur, Mohan (and Gowarikar) have quick fix solutions. One song and the caste problem is eradicated, one sermon (on why we are such lazy louts) and there is an army to build a small hydel project, one social visit to the sarpanch’s home, and the gender issue (female illiteracy) is tackled.

It’s as if, these very elementary things did not occur to local NGOs, and that it takes a ‘Gee-Whiz’ NRI to come and wave a magic wand. And as if all NRIs packing their bags and returning to India will mean an end to all our troubles!

You don’t see how horrifying repercussions of the casteism and communalism can be, or just how deep-rooted the sexism is, or how ignorance, corruption and superstition have such a strong grip on rural India, that large chunks of people remain tragically backward. In one snigger-inducing conversation, Geeta actually defends the government’s efforts at solving social issues – that would surprise even UP politicians! On the other hand, in a village as prosperous looking as Charanpur, there is no television, no STD booths and no cars—when was the last time Gowarikar took a peek at a North Indian village?

Mohan has been away from India just 12 years, yet the sight of a boy selling water at a station moves him to tears, the story of a weaver driven to penury (the man speaking almost poetic, urban Hindi) makes his eyes water and he is appalled that Charanpur has electricity problems? Mr Bhargava of NASA with such deep nostalgia for his homeland, never heard or read of starvation deaths, farmers’ suicides, droughts and epidemics?

Okay, so Gowarikar wanted to hint at the problems without going to deep, or disturbing the entertainment seeking Shah Rukh Khan fan too much. Fine, that is acceptable, but what about the elements that make a story interesting? Where is the real conflict? (remember Insaan Jaag Utha or Manthan in a similar genre?) Where are the emotional highs? Where is the soul-churning? Where is the wrenching sacrifice? Where is the ennobling love? Where is the metaphorical mountain that Mohan Bhargava must climb to be deemed a hero of our times?

Gowarikar may not have been able to resist platitudes, but he is an accomplished filmmaker, so there are, unexpectedly poignant moments—like the water-seller at the station carefully counting change to return to Mohan as the train pulls away; or the starving farmer depriving his own family of a meal to feed Mohan; or Mohan finally dumping his mineral water bottle for a drink of dirty water from a ‘kulhad’, or the group of oppressed little girls breaking into an exuberant dance.

Shah Rukh Khan has been able to give a performance of such sincerity that you want to believe in the character’s simplistic zeal. Unfortunately the rest of the cast can’t keep pace. Look at Gayatri Joshi’s ramp gait and manicured nails, or Kishori Ballal’s pronounced South Indian accent and chic ethnic saris and you can see Khan’s homework is sound.

Maybe Swades, using Shah Rukh Khan’s massive star power, was meant to exhort all of us to do our bit for the country—a very noble thought and if it succeeds in inspiring a few Page 3 wastrels, Swades would be considered a masterpiece in retrospect.


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