By Jitesh Pillai, Sunday Times of India , December 19, 2004
After Lagaan, what? The answer’s blowing in the wind. Swades. Here’s the verdict: This is a gusty and outstanding film. Welcome back to real, solid film-making. In the era of shallow and fraudulent NRI and Quentin Tarantino – inspired gelled heroes and DKNY threads, here’s the definitive movie with a moral framework. It harks back to the era of socially committed film-makers like Bimal Roy and B. R. Chopra, where movie moves beyond the message.
Right away, you’re drawn into the life of Mohan Bharghava (Shah Rukh Khan), a project manager at NASA. He’s busy devising strategies to help make the world a better place. Mohan works on a rainfall monitoring satellite which is lifted into orbit. But in the throes of launching a brand new satellite, other pangs gnaw at him. He wants to visit India which he hasn’t visited in ten years, to meet Kaveri-amma (Kishori Balal), his childhood nanny and surrogate mother. When he returns to the village called Charanpur, it is more than just a return to his roots. Much to his chagrin, while the world is making rapid strides to the moon, Charanpur doesn’t have electricity and is plagued with the ills of casteism, a moth-eaten morality and an abject lack of basic amenities. Here he encounters the idealistic Geeta (Gayatri Joshi), who practices what she preaches but is a tad too upright for the easygoing NASA scientist.
Mohan’s journey through the countryside is a metaphor for his own inward voyage. Slowly but surely he becomes a convert. And then comes the moment of epiphany. His idyll is shattered when he sees a child sell a glass of water for 25 paise. Back in Charanpur, Mohan rallies the villagers and harnesses a water reservoir and restores electricity to the hinterland.
Duty calls and Mohan returns to America with a heavy heart. But his country beckons again. Does Mohan Bhargava listen to the pull of his purse-strings or des he march to a different drummer’s beat? Thank God, Swades is not Lagaan. Lagaan was winning against all odds, about good triumphing over evil. Swades is a farewell to materialism. It’s about creating a better life. It’s about the choices we make.
If further proof was needed that Lagaan was indeed directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, then Swades hammers it home quite soundly. He posits integral questions about brain-drain, the quest for a better life, India ‘s insular approach to modernity and, finally, moving questions about life itself. The Indian attitude of attributing our failures to hoary tradition is also a question the director raises.
Swades is also a rousing testament to the indomitable human spirit. Just watch the scene when Mohan goes to a farmer’s house to collect some pending money. The film echoes the statement that it’s the rebels in society who make all the difference. There are times when the director is self-indulgent with his songs and unhurried pacing. There are other moments when he belabors the point about NRI being an alien in his own country and the cultural clash of values. But these are minor warts.
Swades is a triumph of honest writing. There are so many moments when Gowariker could have put us through the emotional wringer but he holds back, giving the film its gravitas. Full marks to dialogue writer K P Saxena for his heartfelt dialogue. Gowariker’s screenplay is smashingly original. The wonderful economy of expression and the deliberate silences imbue the film with a poetic resonance.
A R Rahman and Javed Akhtar coalesce their superior talents to produces gems like Yeh taara, Yun chala and the rousing title track. Cinematographer Mahesh Aney’s burnished hues give the film that bucolic feel and a searing intensity Gowariker reiterates that God is in the detail. He also extracts spell-binding performances from his supporting cast including Kishori Balal, Rajesh Vivek and Dayashankar Pandey. Debutante Gayatri Joshi makes a confident first impression investing Geeta with sensitivity. But ultimately your heart leaps out to the magical Shah Rukh Khan, who unarguably gives his career’s finest performance. Shorn of any artifice or nervous energy, his anguish is tangible. He inhabits Mohan Bharghava with consummate ease, you can feel the earnestness of his intentions, the wetness of his tears.
Swades is undoubtedly the No 1 movie of the year. Art imitates life. Swades is compelling and a brave testimony to that. Instead of copping out, Gowariker takes the road less travelled. And that makes all the difference. No villains, no skin, no disco, no mustard fields. Gowariker has his heart in the right place. Go find yours! Gentle viewers, the revolution is near.