Swades (2004): Shah Rukh's best, brilliant!

The Aazaadi Sawaari continues, from Washington D.C. to Charanpur...

"I'll beat you to it", said one of my best friends and peer mentors who I saw Swades (2004) with. Well-qualified to speak to the Cape Canaveral, Florida, setting where he spent summers conducting research for his doctoral education, the Gandhian kept his word. Today, he teaches in India at one of these, and is actively involved in public service. I look up to him for his decision to give up a career with the glitz and glamor of Corporate America for a 'greater good'. And I'm in agreement with this scene being among the best in contemporary Indian cinema:

It's a strikingly fact-based portrayal of the real India. And it hits its audience hard. Because for all the buzz around India's progress as an economic power (which is undeniable), we tend to forget that what is much more impressive (in the true sense of the word) and frankly, more important, than India's GDP growth statistics or the flow of investment there, is that every day, 10,000 children die there. We could just as easily have been in their place.

We can blame their situation on government, or on the growing middle class (which increases the distance between the rich and the poor). We can choose to carelessly accept it and brand it under the 'so is life' school of thought. Or we can choose to learn from Swades, which provides a surprisingly easy recipe -- concurrent with Gandhi's teachings -- to convert patriotism and a caring attitude to tangible benefit for society. And take it upon ourselves to contribute whatever little we can (regardless of where we are), to a country that the World Bank estimates houses nearly a third of the world's poor. I say we start with helping organizations such as Child Rights and You. As a former board member (I have no shame in admitting I needed the reminder Swades offered), a special note of thanks to Javed Akhtar, Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan, Sonu Nigam, Hariharan, and Shaan, among others, for this.

On to less serious notes and fun highlights...

So the one film in which Shah Rukh Khan the actor overshadowed Shah Rukh Khan the showman also happens to be the only film starring him I enjoy more with each viewing. There were several instances such as the one noted above, and as many that were effective for what the dialogue contained as what it did not, a result of excellent cinematography.

Swades was about Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh), a project manager at NASA, who visited India to bring his nanny Kaaveri Amma (Kishori Balal) to America. His quest took him to Charanpur, where Kaaveri Amma lived with Geeta (Gayatri Joshi), a teacher at a school in the village. After living in the village for a few days, he returned to America. But with knowledge of the issues (that I'll leave to you to discover) the people of the village -- a microcosm of villagers throughout the country -- were confronted with, he felt he could make a difference. He had a decision to make. Would he do himself justice?

1. Shah Rukh as Mohan was fantastic. He looked and fit the part perfectly. The dialogue delivery was excellent, and the improvisation within the scope of the character, more so than in any other Shah Rukh film, enough to state that this is, to me, Shah Rukh's best performance of all time. It is by far (in caps now: BY FAR) my favorite. Since it is the exception, I have often wondered whether this as much because of Ashutosh Gowariker as anyone else. After seeing Jodhaa Akbar (2008), I think that just might be the case. Yet, let that not take anything away from the quality of acting here, which was top-notch. Well done, Shah Rukh!

2. The plot had so very many real-world scenarios Indians living abroad could relate to. From naturalization...

...to missing a nanny...

...and rebuilding life in a home away from the home country.

3. The film contained one of the best travel songs in Yun Hi Chala Chal, previously discussed at this link. It was also inspiration for an installment of the 'Song for each picture' series. The only thing that bugged me here was the placement of the Pioneer stereo. No, not because I have anything against the brand (long associated with quality, and I agree it is one of the good ones), but because it proved that even Ashutosh Gowariker is only human.

4. Honorable mention to Rajesh Vivek who played Nivaran. You might recall he played the role of Guran in Gowariker's Lagaan (2001). He was also part of Jodhaa Akbar (2008).

5. Gita was the kind of woman any true traditionalist would love. She loved and honored books. (Contrast with Sonali Bendre in Sarfarosh (1999) at #2 in this review, or with Dia Mirza in Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) at #5 in this review.)

She was humble but proud, beautiful but not vain, scholarly but traditional, and arguably as much if not more of a feminist than any of the Chak De India (2007) women. A living example of the kind of goodness (that some of us find fatally attractive) that is achieved when one understands that traditionalism and modesty can be complementary to modernity, if one so wishes. For that, she was as Indian as anyone. And for not jumping on the 'Indian culture is repressive to women' bandwagon while holding her own, I absolutely loved her!

Of course, also because she took joy in teaching, as evidenced by her smile here (I know, I know, it could just be that she's a good actor, but I have had no issues playing along). For her first film, she was brilliant. Contrast this frame with Azra in Mother India (1957), #11 in this review.

Kishori Balal as Kaaveri Maa was excellent, and even served as a catalyst for comic relief.

6. Also contrast the earth tones in Mother India with those employed here.

7. The bit where the villagers were shown Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) was beautifully done. This should be very easy, but does anyone know or want to guess who this kid is?

Of course you know who this is!

8. While #7 led to Yeh Taara Woh Taara by Udit Narayan, which was amazingly well-choreographed, Saawariya Saawariya by Alka Yagnik stood out for its role in the plot. The song was also part of an installment of the 'Song for each picture' series. All the songs were excellent. Aahista Aahista is a great song to sing-along to, and Pal Pal Hai Bhaari was beautifully integrated. And the title song, Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera, was splendid. A. R. Rahman and Javed Akhtar are two of the best in the business, and their contributions here have stood the test of time -- the soundtrack sounds fresh four years later.

9. The unsung hero was the background score, which was later released as a separate album. In a film filled with emotions and in which cinematography is a critical element to set the tone (because the visuals are essential to add realism to the plot), the score is afforded prominence. And A. R. Rahman delivered in fine form. You might have sensed some of that in the video above.

Swades was the only film that left me wishing Shah Rukh made better and more meaningful films more often (one in five years will do). Although Chak De was very good, it did not get better with repeat viewings. Here is a populist who is under tremendous pressure to please his legions of fans, and takes few risks as a result. By definition, that means few, if any, films that are not formulaic. And that is understandable, especially because the response to Swades -- an outlier in his career -- was hardly one it deserved. Is it just me, or did Swades deserve better box office collections? Do you think the seriousness of the subject hurt it?

'Wow' is my only constant reaction to this film, for everything from the Shah Rukh who made it work, to the directing prowess of Ashutosh Gowariker (my favorite, for obvious reasons), fantastic music by A. R. Rahman, lyrical genius by Javed Akhtar, and the introduction of stunningly beautiful Gayatri Joshi, whose performance was arguably as integral to the film as any other.

The film is based on a true story (said to be inspired from the book Bapu Kuti which the film credits at the outset), but credit the film for presenting it to the masses in such a neatly packaged product. That it had no marked antagonists was very deliberate -- if, as religions teach, the more difficult forces to overcome lie within a person, Swades is a tremendous tale of the trials and triumphs of humanity. One of the best films of the decade!

Movie rating: 4.75/5 (Brilliant!)

My classification: PG (Clean as can be expected this decade)

Music rating: 4.75/5 (Excellent!)

Official website: swades.com

And finally...
Since I cannot share pictures from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, the next best thing would be to share replicas at Legoland California :) Have a great start to the week, everyone!


Kanan said...

I remember really liking this film. I'll have to watch it again after reading this post of yours. It's been years now since I saw it. Aamir Khan looks adorable in YKB. :) Check out his screenshots from the film here and here. :)

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Kanan: I'm awed every time I see it. The depictions are refreshingly real, and the elements combine very well. I hope you find this is the case when you rewatch. It hasn't ceased to amaze me.

Thanks so much for those pictures of Aamir from YKB! I haven't yet seen it (been told I'm missing out), but intend to change that soon :)


Anonymous said...

I liked this one a lot and was really surprised by SRK doing such a film! He did a good job here but I thought his acting was way better in Chak De! India. And I agree with you that Gowarikar was probably responsible for SRK's good performance here. SRK needs a good director to keep his hamming in check and there dont seem to be many of those around! lol

This was the first Bollywood movie in years that acknowledged the presence of the rural India and the fact that rural India isnt all sarson ke khet and jolly farmers singing and dancing. Plus, as you point out, it has the only truly feminist heroine I've seen on-screen (the Chak De girls find their feminism through the events of the film while this lady knows her own worth and refuses to back down!) especially with King Khan in the saddle!

For all its good points though, its not a movie I would like to revisit - it induces too much guilt in my NRI soul!!!

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Bollyviewer: We could certainly use more good directors, and Ashutosh G. has indeed managed to get the best out of the people he's worked with. His next, a comedy -- What's your Raashi -- stars Harman Baweja and Priyanka Chopra. Should be interesting.

Completely agree that the real rural India is shown so seldom, we have to go back a long way for a popular film that showcased it. In my hopeless bias, I like to think Lagaan did it too, but then I remind myself that Champaner was based in the nineteenth century and that too on paper ;)

Ditto to the heroine here! She was fabulous. As for Shah Rukh, he was great in Chak De! India too, but maybe it's the complete package of Swades that I favor by a lot. This TOI piece notes that Hrithik Roshan was the initial choice to play Mohan, which is even more interesting because Ashutosh had approached Shah Rukh to play Bhuvan in Lagaan. In retrospect, I'm so glad with the way it turned out, with each of Aamir, Shah Rukh, and Hrithik getting their movies.

For all its good points though, its not a movie I would like to revisit - it induces too much guilt in my NRI soul!!!

So true...the mission of the film is therefore accomplished! It came at a great time for me, I must admit, and I have certainly drawn inspiration from it.

Anonymous said...

Adab theBollywoodFan!
EĪd mubārak!
‘Īd sa‘īd !
Great review dost! I love the lego land pix! You know we have our very own Lego Land here in Minnesota at the Mall of America. My favorite parts of Swades were the Yun Hi Chala Chal tune as you mentioned, and even this gori could understand and remember some of the lyrics..."Kitni haseen hai ye duniya!" I also loved the Yaadon Ki Baaraat film within the film. Having seen YKB in Swades I had to quickly rent it, watch it, and loved it. Though it's already been answered, I do know that you've included master Amir Khan in photo number satte, I mean 7!
All the best!

theBollywoodFan said...

Adab Sita-ji! Thanks for stopping by, and Eid Mubarak to you too! That's very interesting that they have Lego displays at the Mall of Americas. I've always been fascinated with Lego, and still have fun with them :) Over time, it is the only collection I have held on to in its entirety across the moves, and I still add to it! I know the initial impression is that it's for kids, but there are enough adults who are Lego Maniacs as well, and I fall in that category of course...for better or for worse, LOL.

"Kitni haseen yeh duniya," you say! Indeed, and that's great!

I'm really looking forward to YKB. Can't wait to see how Aamir acted as a kid. As for the film within a film here, it was probably Ashutosh Gowariker's way of paying tribute to their friendship. Swades, I believe, was the first film he directed which did not star Aamir in some capacity.


Nicki said...

Swades is such a beautiful film. I was impress with it. It took me a while to see it cause I had no interest in it. One reason was I really rather see Aamir in SRK's role instead. When I finally saw it, I was blown away by SRK. I was reminded again why this guy is loved by many. Thanks for reviewing it and reminding me about it. Wonderful screen caps!

Anonymous said...

Adab babuji,
That's nice to know that including master Aamir via YKB in Swades was sort of a wink by Ashutosh Gowariker.

I heart legos! They have no age limit, well except for vey small kids who may eat them. Here's a link from the MOA's lego land:


All the best,

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Eid Mubarak Abbas!

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Nicki: Yes, Shah Rukh surprised a lot of us with this, didn't he? Although I would like to see his fans stand up for him here, more. Too often, I've heard, "it's okay" sans enthusiasm, and even more often, seen it not be part of his recommended movies, which I disagree with. Maybe this leads to a difference between fans of Aamir and Shah Rukh?

Sita-ji: Thanks for the link! That must be so much fun! I wish I could just dive into the monitor and run around all that Lego! I have a few hundred pictures from Legoland in Carlsbad (by San Diego) that I'll hope to share soon. Glad to know you too believe that age doesn't matter with Lego...they do have sets for six months plus, which I only know because I've been brainwashing my nephew for over a year now ;)

Shweta: Thank you! And Eid Mubarak to you too!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful film. I don't think there's anything else left to say about it.

Anonymous said...

This film reduces my inner-NRI to tears every time I watch it. And the emotion does not weaken with repeated viewings, since, as you say, the film gets better each time we see it.

This was one of the first Shah Rukh films I saw. As a result, most of the others have been a bit disappointing. I too wish he would take more serious roles. He is more than capable of handling them.

I didn't realise that I was seeing young Aamir in the YKB clip! Nor that this was Gowriker's first film without him. Reading your blogs and comments is a real education! Thanks for putting so much time and effort into them.

You are not alone in falling for Gita! I can quite understand it. Also I can very much identify with her, having been a teacher at one time. I even used to have long hair and a sari at that time. We probably looked like identical twins, in fact! :) Except that I never had any false eyelashes. (Despite her modest role, I think Gayatri still wears these here!)

Eid mubarak.

likhte rahie!

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Anonymous: Glad you enjoyed the film. Thank you for stopping by!

Hi Joss: Thanks for the Eid wishes, and the very best to you as well!

Wonder when Shah Rukh's approach to versatility will catch up to him professionally. Good for him it's lasted this long, and I hope for his sake, and for the sake of Bollywood fans not won over by merely his charisma, that he takes on more diverse roles. As you say, upon seeing Swades, we know the breadth of his skill set is not the concern.

Many blessings your way for having prioritized teaching! And I would never catch false eyelashes (should be more skeptical in all respects, really), but agree that 'keeping it real' oozes way more class, much like the cumulative effect in your case! ;)

YKB should be fun, and I cannot wait to see it. And thank you for your kind words, and for visiting and commenting -- the learning and fun associated with blogging and reading blogs make it a very welcome complement to our fandom!

Best wishes.

dunkdaft said...

I would add two scenes u cant get outta mind after watching this flick.
1. Little boy selling water on rlway station.
2. SRK siting on boat (most famous poster of muvi) shot at Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh.

amazing movie !!

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Darshit: Those two scenes are fantastic, and I think among the most striking examples of Ashutosh Gowariker's excellence. The video toward the beginning of the post has those two bits (hopefully you can see it).

Amazing movie it is! Cheers!

PS: I didn't know #2 was shot in Madhya Pradesh, thanks for sharing that bit of information.