Monday, January 03, 2005

Another film review: Swades

Swades was one of the most hyped Hindi films of the year. It has some merits, but it is essentially a rather grand failure.

Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, who also wrote and directed the international hit Lagaan, this was expected to be a big hit both in the international and domestic markets. Like Lagaan, the film had a huge budget. Also like Lagaan, there is a pointedly "uplifting" message about Indian society (the film's title means "one's own country," and is an allusion to a famous anti-colonial agitation in Bengal in the early 1900s).

The premise of Swades is a little hard to swallow. Shah Rukh Khan plays a NASA engineer in Washington DC, who goes back to India to find the nanny who raised him after his parents were killed in a car accident. He finds her in a small village in Uttar Pradesh, cared for by her daughter Gita (Gayatri Joshi -- a fashion model making her screen debut). He wants to bring her back to the U.S. with him, but along the way he falls in love with Gita and takes an interest in furthering the Development of the village.

Positives: The emphasis on caste, merely a token presence in Lagaan, is here spelled out in much greater detail. Also central to the film are the many difficulties involved in bringing modern amenities to India's backward villages; one of the climactic moments in the film involves the installation of self-sustaining electricity. (Just as the NASA framing of the film seems to be an allusion to deceased astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the hydroelectric power sequence is certainly an allusion to Narmada.) And there are a couple of dynamite songs ("Yeh Tara Woh Tara") from A.R. Rahman.

But here's where it gets odd. More than Lagaan, this film feels like an old-fashioned 'social reform' film from the 1950s. (One thinks of the paeans to collectivized farming in Mother India, for instance.) Swades argues for: do-it-yourself Development, take Repsonsibility here and now, and don't stay Abroad too long making money. Nice sentiments, all.

But those sentiments seem to be out of touch with today's audiences. In an era of video-phone underage sex scandals, making a film this self-consciously naive seems risky, if not stupid.

Lagaan was equally preachy and hackneyed, but it had cricket for its saving grace. (There aren't very many Hindi movies that involve the sport, oddly enough; it was a novelty in more than one sense.) Perhaps it can be said that Swades fails because it has a picturesque village in need of Uplift without a cricket match at the center to divert audiences from all the heavy dogmatism.

That's not to say I don't agree with the idealism of Swades. I myself share many of those all old-fashioned sentiments...

And I think the recent explosion of concern for the victims of the Tsunami within India shows that civic responsibility is very much alive and well there.


Quizman said...

You wrote: 'Just as the NASA framing of the film seems to be an allusion to deceased astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the hydroelectric power sequence is certainly an allusion to Narmada"

Nothing of that sort. :-) Gowarikar explained in an interview that he wanted Bhargava to be a s/w engineer, but (later) felt that it would not convey the contrast between high-tech (his job) and low-tech (village) well enough to the front benchers. Hence, he made Bhargava a "rocket man". Simple explanation really.

And the dam has *nothing* to do with Narmada. It has everything to do with a real life story. Dilip D Souza's name appears in the film credits.
Here are the links the real life stories behind 'Swades'

NASA's GSM projectThe dam in Wai villageJanagraha and Ramesh Ramanathan

11:16 PM  
Amardeep said...

Quizman, thanks I had no idea -- the mainstream reviews I read were so focused on playing the 'flop' card that they never bothered to mention this really interesting source. I would have to agree with you that the Narmada reference I was suggesting must be wrong.

The same (?) Dilip D'Souza has some killer coverage of his experiences post-Tsunami at his blog, but probably you know that already.

12:25 PM  
Amardeep said...

Or -- on the other hand, this is the same Dilip D'Souza who wrote The Narmada Damned. So maybe I was right after all!

The story of a small damn that works -- and which is produced locally for local use -- *can* be read as a response to a Big Dam project, initially funded by the World Bank, and which has benefited politicans and contractors above all else.

12:46 PM  
Quizman said...

Fair enough. After all, there is no right or wrong interpretation.

Indeed, I am aware of D'Souza's work, but I was referring to Gowarikar's motivation. I felt that the director wanted to show how Bhargava, the space scientist is literally brought down to earth. Remember, Gowarikar made it a gradual process of discovery for Bhargava - first the cell phones do not work, then the telephone system is antiquated, electricity is not reliable and ad infinitum. In the initial stages, Bhargava is wary and not contemptous. Gowarikar goes to the extent of showing US made shower gels, shaving creams in the RV.

But hey - the subtle discovery for Bhargava (as my wife indicated soon after we saw the film) is the *openess* with which villagers embrace technology and change - barring a few conservatives. The postman is all bright eyed about the internet and so on. "Suna hain iske baare mein"

Now, I suspect that Gowarikar must've faced a challenge to create a central *event* that would enable Bhargava to complete the process of discovery and change. While the entire film 'Lagaan' was focussed on the event - Swades by its very objective could not be. It is not so much about the event as it is about the protagonist. [Aside - the film should've been 30 mins shorter]

I would beg to differ with your view that Swades argues for "don't stay Abroad too long making money". In fact, for the first time, I noticed an NRI actively criticising and de-romanticising India. Since the Chopra-Johar combine have reduced rural India and NRIs to a romanticised, even mocking versions of reality, (see DDLJ or KKKG, for example), this was a welcome change.

It was, IMHO, more about individual empowerment and disdain for the dual desi curse of hopelessness & apathy. I felt that it was a huge blow to socialism, since it exhibits disdain for central planning (the dependence on "sarkar") and focusses instead of individual enterprise.

Btw, Lagaan was, as Gowarikar has mentioned in nummerous interviews, inspired by Asterix comics - a small village taking on the might of an empire. He even recreated some of the characters from the comic book, fights and all.

Anyway, that was my $0.02 worth. I apologize for taking so much space on your comments section.

1:58 PM  
Amardeep said...


No worries. Those are great comments -- you've made me realize there's more to this movie than I had originally thought.

I do think the business about the postman and email was a little annoying -- stage-managed for an urban audience, I felt. I also didn't really believe entirely in the transformation they showed Shah Rukh Khan experiencing.

But I did appreciate the fact that instead of idealizing village life, there was a decided emphasis on criticizing the established order -- without demanding that it be utterly destroyed. The village Brahmins aren't evil, they're just wrong, Gowariker is arguing.

2:15 PM  
Quizman said...

Could be. However, I've seen a PBS program on NIIT's Hole in the Wall project. They interviewed villagers who were exposed to the internet for the first time. When asked, "what is the internet?", a schoolgirl replies in Marathi, "you can send everyone letters with it and it reaches them instantaneously" or something to that effect. :-)

2:34 PM  
isac asimov said...

swade reminds me of the goofy,eanest patriotic feelings espoused by protagonists of 11/2 hr telefilms ,that were made by DD.

1:22 PM  
zap said...

it appears that Swades flopped because not too many people have the guts to say -I am part and reason for the problems that persist and plague my country/society-.
Well, also, it cud have been slightly shorter.
Do not think it was preachy or that Bhargava's transformation came thru without conviction.
This for me, was the most important film of last year.

7:53 AM  
Olinda said...


I enjoy your reviews.

As much of a die-hard SRK fan as I am, I found Swades very disappointing. While it's a big leap to accept him a NASA engineer, that wasn't the problem I had with this movie. The main problem for me was, it just felt bloodless, drained of life. I know that previous SRK movies like K3G and Dil Se have him in more "drama queen" roles and the music and dance sequences are more over the top, but surely there must be some mid-way point between the arty-farty Indian movie and the Bollywood masala. Even without one song-and-dance sequence in it, Sarkar felt more like a live thing. Swades for me was just sooo flat, like a soda without any fizz.

There were a few moments in it that had some warmth - SRK learning how to wear a dhoti, the old woman with failing eyes who says "Bijli" when the electricity goes on - but even there, no real spark.

I will give props to the writers though, for the moment where one of the village elders says "They have no culure in America" and SRK contradicts him and says "They do have culture, it's just different from ours."

8:39 PM  
balihai said...

interesting views amardeep,
but maybe you were searching too deep here.
a lot of people went to see this film searching for completely different things. most went searching a better 'lagan'.
i saw the film, in bombay, the day it released and came back and wrote this:

11:24 AM  
balihai said...

and no, i really dont think the dam had anything to do with narmada (though dalip was involved in 'swades') and an indian in nasa does not amount to kalpana chawla. people of indian origion have worked at nasa from before the first manned space mission to the moon.

11:27 AM  
Elfie Crystal said...

I thought SWADES was a loving and respectful and entertaining film. I give it top marks. The music is out of this world - I am doing more research on these pieces - adore them. They are very spiritual and uplift which is what the best music does.

Love and cheers to all,

Elfie Crystal

8:14 PM  

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