"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
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!