Review: Swades / Raincoat

Posted on December 26, 2004


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We, the people, can build a better India, says Ashutosh Gowariker’s new movie.

DEC 26, 2004 – FEW RECENT DIRECTORS have delivered more go-for-broke filmmaking than Ashutosh Gowariker did in Lagaan, particularly when Aamir Khan, armed with a crude bat, tries to convince fellow villagers that cricket is child’s play. As they watch, he misses the ball, he misses again… and when he finally connects, it isn’t just a six, it’s a six that strikes the bell at a temple on a nearby hillock, thereby vindicating Aamir’s stand – why, the gods themselves have spoken! I’d have laughed at this corniness, had only my jaw not dropped that someone had actually made such a madly audacious sequence work.

If Lagaan crackled with a 220V charge, Gowariker’s latest, Swades, hums along sedately on a couple of AA batteries – an appropriate analogy, if you think about it, considering it deals with the generation of power in a blackout-prone village, Charanpur.

The instant-classic status that befell Lagaan has prompted Gowariker to aim higher – and we know this straightaway because he begins with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. Then – after some wobbly set-up sequences in America, including an embarrassingly pat this-happened-then-this-happened recitation of the hero’s life-story – successful NRI Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) sets off to Charanpur for personal reasons, and soon after he lands in India, there’s a fabulous bit of whimsy. He’s lost at a road that forks into two, when a sadhu (scene-stealer Makarand Deshpande) appears, proclaiming, “Tum raasta bhatak gaye ho,â€? and leads Mohan to his destination.

That’s the kind of film Gowariker is attempting, something like the last third of Guide – a man goes to a village for largely self-serving purposes, then faces a crisis of conscience about the value of selflessness. The road to Charanpur isn’t just a geographical quest – it’s a spiritual search, making Mohan reexamine his life in an adopted land of plenty when his own people lack everything he takes for granted. And it’s in weaving these messages into a mainstream movie that Swades makes its biggest missteps.

One minute, you’re sobered by the story of a poverty-stricken farmer. The next, you’re giggling at Mohan’s amusing attempts to wear a dhoti. Immediately after, there’s a speech that mocks our slavish adherence to sanskar and parampara. And I began to wonder, is this film trying to entertain me or ennoble me?

Gowariker would argue he’s doing both, but this sort of thing is tricky in a big, commercial movie, especially one that’s a bit too issue-happy. Swades addresses not just power generation, but also untouchability, child marriage, illiteracy, poverty – all of which add to groaning screen minutes in an already overlong film. The overload of nobility doesn’t help either – when, say, the inspirational story behind the village school is narrated, AR Rahman fills the background with hymnal chants; we’re all but asked to genuflect.

This occasional tendency to lay it on thick backfires big-time towards the end. The local schoolmaster isn’t just old and revered, he’s also (wouldn’t you know?) a freedom fighter – so when this noble soul looks lovingly into Mohan’s eyes and anoints him successor, anyone who’s seen half a Hindi movie can guess whether Mohan will choose America or Charanpur. So the concluding portions – detailing his choice – appear interminable, salvaged only by the raw longing in Rahman’s voice in the goosefleshy yeh jo des song, picturised such that even our poverty seems more alive and worth coming back to than all of America’s riches.

Yet, there are times Swades works marvellously, despite a definite Lagaan hangover. (There’s a film school thesis waiting to be written – how the recruiting of the cricket team there mirrors the way children are enrolled in school here, how the radha kaise na jale sequence there corresponds to the Dussehra ballet here, and so on.)

Everything is meticulously staged, tastefully mounted, and a delightful undercurrent of humour animates a bunch of pitch-perfect performances. (Shah Rukh, in shirts and jeans far removed from his usual Manish Malhotra fussiness, admirably portrays decent middle-classness.) And there are bursts of sheer magic – when an elder’s wrinkled-parchment face is lit for the first time by electricity, when Mohan finally drinks non-bottled water from a kulhad, when Gita (Gayatri Joshi; no mere hero’s-arm-candy, but an idealistic schoolteacher unafraid to hold forth on swabhiman and atma-nirbharta) absentmindedly writes lyrics from her love solo on the blackboard during class, and, best of all, in the yeh tara number, with its infectious ichak-dana singsong.

The latter is staged during a touring-talkies screening of Yaadon Ki Baaraat – and that’s no coincidence. This lets Gowariker to briefly feature lucky mascot Aamir (cute as a button in the title song, bow tie and all), while reminding us that Swades itself is a yaadon ki baaraat – harking back to a time when mother figures resembled not Hema or Rati but Leela Misra (with lined faces and loving hearts, like the adorable Kishori Ballal here), when heroines like Nutan hinted at what was in their heads rather than on their chests (Gayatri Joshi even looks Nutan-like, lanky and all right angles), and when cinema was as much about success as a subject’s worthiness. Swades may finally be something you stand back and admire rather than fall into and fully embrace, but how often do you say that about a movie?

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‘Raincoat’ may be set in Kolkata, but like all great films, it speaks to everyone, everywhere

JAN 2, 2005 – RITUPARNO GHOSH’S RAINCOATappears to tell a story that could be detailed on the back of a bus ticket. Mannu (Ajay Devgan) comes to Kolkata, meets ex-girlfriend-and-now-married Neeru (Aishwarya Rai), and talks to her until the film ends (with a heartbreaking twist characteristic of O. Henry, credited here as an inspiration). Walking out, you may well grumble, “Why, this sort of thing used to be done in one half-hour episode of Shyam Benegal’s teleserial Katha Sagar, that dramatisation of short stories from writers worldwide. Why did it need to be two hours long?â€?

But Raincoat is only deceptively simple – scratch its surface, and you could spend days wondering what things really mean.

Is Neeru’s off-key rendition of meri jaan mujhe jaan na kaho (from Anubhav, which dealt with a troubled marriage) meant to hint that her own marriage is in trouble? Or, is it simply an in-joke, Aishwarya Rai’s revenge for Ajay Devgan’s off-key rendition of chingari koi bhadke in their earlier collaboration Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam?

When we see a can of shave foam in the bathroom of the well-to-do friend Mannu’s staying with, and when Mannu dabs his face with shaving cream from his own much-squeezed tube, does this merely suggest the economic disparity between the two? Or, does this actually reveal Mannu’s self-reliance, thus showing us how difficult it must be for him to do what he’s going to do, beg friends for money to set up a business?

A friend’s wife teaches Mannu how to use a mobile phone, and later gives him a sleeping pill knowing he’ll need it. Neeru (in a flashback) orders a hesitant Mannu to take her to an adult movie, and elsewhere, when a bedridden Mannu playfully pulls her towards him after his mother leaves the room, she doesn’t squeal, “Chhodo na, maa dekh legi,â€? as you’d expect, but instead explains rather practically, “Mujhe bhi bukhaar lag jaayegi.â€? Are these just things that the characters do, or are they indicators that women are generally stronger than men?

When Mannu sets forth to Kolkata in a train, Mathura nagarpati kahe tum Gokul jaay plays in the background. Is this simply one of Debojyoti Mishra’s haunting compositions, or do the lyrics ask us to view Mannu-Neeru in the Krishna-Radha mould?

Despite Aveek Mukherjee’s exquisite cinematography – there’s a breathtaking shot of a rainy street viewed from the inside of a rickshaw, through a rainbow-striped plastic sheet keeping out the water – why does the production feel stagy? Is this deliberate, because the film’s structure is like a play, where in Act 1, Mannu/Neeru tell each other things, and in Act 2, they discover things about each other?

And so on… so Raincoat definitely isn’t casual entertainment, but if you’re willing to see, hear, feel, it’s an intensely rewarding experience – if only for the performances. Annu Kapoor pitches in a characteristically energetic cameo, Ajay Devgan is superb as a sad-sack loser (a world-and-a-half apart from the cool-cat villain he played earlier this year in Khakee – how’s that for range!) – but the movie really belongs to Aishwarya Rai. For the first time in a while – or is that the first time ever? – she convinces us that she’s been touched by life, tainted by it, looking all the more ravishing because she looks… real. That, more than anything in this wonderful film, could well be Rituparno Ghosh’s greatest achievement.

Copyright ©2004/2005 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi