Readers Write In #180: Revisiting Swades

Posted on May 17, 2020

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(by N Madhusudhan)

Underneath the explicit messaging, a solidtransformation arc of its protagonist and a progressive love story stand out

Revisiting an old favorite is a fascinating exercise. It gives you an opportunity to understand why you liked the film in the first place, which you could not or did not want to in the past. You still don’t do it consciously, but it ends up happening. The result can be two things: One, you find that the film has aged well, and you like it more. Two, certain parts of the film do not appeal to you as well as they did earlier, but there is still a lot to like. My reaction when I watched Swades recently was more of the latter. Very rarely do you end up disliking the film.

Re-watching Roja recently was almost that experience. It is just too simplistic. I couldn’t make it past the scene when Nasser comes to Madhubala and says how unfair it is that the government is ready to rescue a cryptographer by releasing a terrorist,with little regard to the forces who risked their lives to capture him. The romance in the first half is still great. But that is something you take for granted in a Mani Ratnam film. You want to see how the political aspect of the story is dealt with. I was disappointed because I have seen Mani Ratnam do a much superior job at it in Dil Se.

From that perspective, there is a lot to rave about in Swades. Yes, the film bites more than it can chew. Yet, there is a likeable earnestness in the conceit. At a time when messaging in movies is still considered as a filmmaker’s way of serving the society, Swades gives its protagonist enough selfish reasons to engage in his noble activities till almost 2/3rd of the film. In other words, he is not a “hero” to start with.

Mohan (Shahrukh Khan) is not an angel sent from the skies. He comes to India to take Kaveri Amma (KishoriBallal), his childhood caretaker back with him to the US. He wakes up to the fact that he has abandoned her and does not want to live with the guilt. He loves her, yes. But you would think that if he had cared more, he would not have allowed her to join an old age home in the first place. He thinks he will land in Delhi, visit this place, and just take her back with him. He is impervious to the probability that she might not want to come with him. He does not find her there and is told that she currently lives in Charanpur, a village about 200 kms from Delhi. He borrows an air-conditioned caravan from his friend, because the village may not have adequate facilities, and sets out to meet her.

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Soon after he meets Kaveri Amma, he realizes that she must get Geetha (Gayathri Joshi) married before she can leave India. After a few banters initially with Geetha, it is evident that Mohan has fallen for Geetha when he wakes up to shock that there is a matchmaking meet happening for Geetha. Just watch him do a little dance when the matchmaking does not work.

Geetha makes it clear that she won’t get married before starting a high school in Charanpur. The panchayat and people in the village are not interested in sending kids to school. Mohan takes it upon himself to convince people to enroll their children. He visits practically every person in the village to try to convince the panchayat. All with the intention that he can take Kaveri Amma back with him as soon as possible.

I know I am making Mohan seem like a heartless person. But watch him in the scene when he is baffled by a response that implies child marriage. Watch him argue with one of the hotheaded elders in the village. He might do it for selfish reasons, but he still seems to care about the kids.

Watch him convince the villagers the importance of unity (in one of the most wondrous passages in the film) leading up to AR Rahman’s exquisite “Yeh tara woh tara”. Geetha knows why Mohan is doing all these things. This man is about to take away the only motherly figure she has in her life. But his sincerity and the fact the Mohan is gradually making a difference in her village makes her develop first signs of feelings towards him.

I loved the fact that Geetha does not fall for him easily because he is the hero. We probably would not question it if she did, but I like that the fact that the film does not make it easy. This is the quintessential king of Bollywood romance we are taking about. The film impressively, does not care. She falls for him only after she develops a strong sense of respect for him. She takes her own sweet time to confess.

I loved the elaborate way Mohan’s journey to another village is staged. He goes to meet a farmer who owes Geetha money. He must travel 3 hours by train, two hours by a boat and 3 more hours by a bus to reach there. He says goodbye to Geetha after pointing out that he sees her love for him in her eyes. It is the probably first time Geetha herself realizes that she loves this man.The journey to the village begins along with Rahman’s underrated “Saawariya”.

For a person who thinks he’s serving mankind by building a satellite, he is woken up from the comforts of his life, by a harrowing story of a weaver put out of his job because of globalization, forced to become a farmer but not allowed to work peacefully by the villagers who don’t want him around, struggling to feed his large family two rotis a day. The story he hears, and a sleepless night thereafter disturb something very fundamental inside him.

Mohan has an interesting relationship with water in the film. He carries bottled water to his first panchayat meeting. He takes shower inside his caravan, not using the water from the village. Before he travels to the other village, he packs a bag full of bottled water. In a stunning scene, Mohan understands the severity of India’s economic divide.While on his way back from the village, he sees a kid running up to a moving train to sell water for 25 paise a glass. An everyday routine that Mohan takes for granted, determines the livelihood of an underprivileged child.This is probably the first time Mohan drinks local water in the film.

This elaborate staging of the journey and the way back makes us realize how deep Mohan must travel to get to the grassroots of his country and how far and disconnected he is to the struggles of his countrymen.

It is not Mohan’s fault that he is born in privilege and leads a comfortable life. But the fact that he is an accomplished scientist at NASA who is not doing anything to his country sows the first seeds of transformation in him. And the entire build up to this transformation is one of the director’s (Ashutosh Gowariker) greatest accomplishments. The issues faced by the people of Charanpur are not hugely different from the one Mohan has just visited.

Further angered by the ignorance of the villagers and their inability to be self-sufficient, Mohan takes it upon himself to find a solution to one of Charanpur’s biggest challenges – continuous supply of electricity. Given Mohan’s well-established relationship with water in the film, it fits beautifully when his ultimate contribution to Charanpur involves harnessing a water stream to generate electricity.Again, it was heartening to see how elaborately these scenes are staged. We first see them finding a source of water, dividing people into various groups to carry out different tasks, building a tank brick by brick, lay out drawings and charts, visit different places to purchase motors and pipes, explain the rate at which the water should flow to generate power, and how minor disruption to the supply is resolved by Mohan, jumping into the reservoir himself etc. He has finally shown the willingness to gets his hands dirty. The NASA scientist has transformed from the belligerent complainer to a devoted and revered leader.

Look at how the love story parallelly blossoms during this stretch. We see Geetha being with Mohan throughout, from lovingly looking at him when he is explaining the plan to the villagers, to crying helplessly when he is required to go back to the US. She wants to marry him but will not leave the village because running her school is still her priority. That is her purpose. She does not compromise on that. Even at her most vulnerable state, Geetha is unwilling to let go of her ambitions. Both Mohan and Geetha make their difficult decisions and finally reconcile to the fact that they need to let go of each other. If this is not equality and progressiveness, I do not know what is.

By now, Mohan understands why Kaveri Amma does not want to go with him and he is not going to force her either. He leaves and we, the audience are rooting for him to come back. The comfortable life in the US becomes less enticing to a man who has realized that the knowledge of his own soil and the connection to his roots are the ones that ultimately matter. Rahman dutifully reminds us “Yeh woh bandhan hai jo kabhi toot nahin sakta” (this is a bond which can never break). He finally decides to come back, much to the bewilderment of his NRI friend and a boss who says he could have gone places. “I am going places” replies Mohan. The boss says, “All right Mohan, go light your bulb”. Deep down, we know that he is going to come back, eventually. But the film makes you want to see it. He comes back and reunites with Geetha, Kaveri amma and of course, his country.

It is a relief that i am one of those persons who does not mind a long film if it keeps me engaged. The pay-off is rich and when a film is so good, you get an immensely satisfying experience.

A lot of issues that are spoken about in this film – abandonment of senior citizens, illiteracy, child marriage etc. deserve separate films of their own. And sometimes, you get a sense that film is indulging in a Public Service Announcement. Yet, the meticulously detailed character arc of Mohan and the endearingly progressive love story overpower the film’s minor flaws.The film boasts of some supremely good performances from Shahrukh Khan, Gayatri Joshi, the late Kishori Ballal and from its supporting actors.The film builds a world that feels lived-in and real. It gets most things right.The result is a towering achievement of a film in a bygone of era of Bollywood which had, later, started becoming content with glossy production values and storylines ripped off from Hollywood films. Somehow, I never saw such earnestness and rootedness in Hindi films after Swades. Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, it is possible to watch films like Swades through legitimate means.