“Hesitating to act because the whole vision might not be achieved, or because others do not yet share it, is an attitude that only hinders progress.”
A movie that starts with (and is based upon) a quote like this must have a soul that connects with the multitude of people who hail from a country that has witnessed hoards of incredible ups and downs in its history and is a standing world-model of diversity. Just imagine this strong message actually impacting every person of this country – it would be a game-changing miracle in many ways. The country is India, the movie is Swades, and we are still waiting for that game-changing miracle to happen.
Swades is a movie that happens once in decades. Why? Humongous production value? Stars at the zenith of their stardom? Catchy musical numbers? Heart racing sequences? Enchanting landscapes? Beautiful heroine? I don’t know, these factors might contribute to a ‘hit’ a movie, but when it comes down to a ‘great’ movie, these factors cannot possibly be as instrumental as it’s soul – read… storyline, dialogues, its ability to impact… in short, the content.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s third directorial venture, a.k.a. Lagaan, carried him (on the magical carpet of success) to the prestigious Kodak Theatre as one of the nominees for Academy Awards. This is an honor that puts a huge responsibility on your shoulders and unless you haven’t worn out those shoulders during that one victorious attempt you might end up creating another miracle as well. Swades was that another miracle – In my opinion, the more beautiful one.
The rousing story of Swades was based upon a ‘K. Shivram Karanth’ novel, but Gowariker and M.G. Sathya also infused in it the real-life story of Aravinda Pillalamarri and Ravi Kuchimanchi, the NRI couple who returned to their roots to ‘bring the change’. A fleet of writers (including Ayan Mukherjee) led by Gowariker himself wrote the screenplay with Gowarikar also writing the dialogues. Javed Akhtar wrote the words and A.R. Rahman adorned them with the melody. This whole team is responsible for pouring the soul in the movie and are equally worthy of creating the magic that I’m talking about.
As we know, another great film ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ famously rejuvenated Gandhian philosophy. However, if we look closely we can feel the invisible presence of Gandhi in Swades as well. For starters, the movie starts with the above-mentioned quote from Gandhi. The protagonist is named after Gandhi – Mohan. Like Gandhi our protagonist comes from a foreign land, witnesses the poverty and illiteracy around, and after realising the need for change eventually makes India his, as we say, Karma-Bhoomi. Like Gandhi he tries to get people to look beyond petty elements (such as caste and religion) and attempts to ignite the fire of self-dependence.
Gowariker chose a seemingly simple premise of a small Indian village that is still crawling through the pits of classism and racism and harbours childish notions of nationalism and culture while completely ignoring the progressive outlook. The reformist mind of Mohan attempts to do something that many great minds have told us yet time and again – one small step at a time.
And especially for this very reason I think it’s very sad that this ‘awesome’ movie was not a smashing hit at the box office. Generally we talk about the artistic and creative poverty of the filmmakers, but in the case of Swades it was the Indian audience whose ludicrous mediocrity was exposed. Many critics argued that the film was based almost entirely upon the idea of changing the social order. Also, Indians have no patience to see such small-scale changes happening in N number of years, that too through allegedly ‘dull’ legal-developmental methods and not in more ‘dashing’ methods, like how we see in movies, such as ‘Nayak’ or ‘Sivaji – the Boss’. This argument only further strengthens my belief that the Indian audience needs to work on their artistic streak and grow matured.
Shah Rukh Khan, whose larger-than-life screen presence has always been misconstrued as ‘acting’, actually delivers a sincere and loving performance in Swades. His sensible and subtle rendering of Mohan Bhargav can only be compared with his another such performance in ‘Chak De… India’. SRK is undoubtedly an entertainer, but it was heartwarming to see that he can be an actor too. Gayatri Joshi, in her first and (so far) the last film role, was a refreshing break from the overexposed Bollywood divas. Her confident presence (that too opposite one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema) was memorable. Kishori Ballal and Vishwa Badola were the good ‘finds’.
The treatment of the songs was at par with the overall treatment of the film. The song ‘Yeh Tara, Woh Tara’ symbolically rejects the social bifurcation based on caste, race, and religion; and instead tries to stroke our progressive streak – absolute directorial triumph. The particular Shehnai piece (the theme-music of the film), according to me, was a masterpiece. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. It’s for such reasons why A.R. Rahman is a musical genius.
There are particularly two dialogues that I find most memorable. One, when the villagers ask Mohan (in accusatory tone) whether he thinks India is the greatest country in the world. Mohan says that he doesn’t think India is the greatest country in the world, but he believes it has the ability to be one. In a country where ‘rationally blind’ people mindlessly chant ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’, this dialogue holds a significant eye-opening truth that we all must devour.
The other dialogue that lingers in my mind is when Mohan’s boss, after learning Mohan is adamant on leaving his ‘prestigious’ NASA job to return to his Indian (undertone, pitiable) roots, says, “Go, light your bulb.” The bulb refers to that ‘small insignificant step’ that great minds often rave about and consider a catalyst in bringing big changes.
As the movie ends, it’s that little ‘bulb’ that lingers in your mind – just like, after the rigorous process of perfume-making and processing hundreds of exotic flowers and spices, all that remains in the end is the enchanting drop of their most purified essence.