Movie Review: Swades (2004)

Swades4 Stars (out of 4)

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Swades is one of the first Bollywood films I watched. At the time, I absolutely loved it. Hundreds of movies later, I wanted to see if it still holds up. Happily, it does.

In short, Swades is the story of a NASA scientist who realizes that the meaning he’s been searching for lies not in the stars but in a small village in India. It’s about belonging to a community where one can have a dramatic impact on the lives of its members. It’s shamelessly inspirational, and effectively so.

Shahrukh Khan gives what is probably my favorite of his performances as the scientist, Mohan. Wracked by guilt for having failed to visit his childhood nanny in India in the twelve years since his parents’ deaths, Mohan takes a two-week leave from his weather satellite project to find his nanny, Kaveri Amma (Kishori Balal), and bring her back to the States.

Mohan finds Kaveri Amma now living in a rural village with Gita (Gayatri Joshi), Mohan’s childhood friend and herself an adult orphan. Kaveri Amma is an integral member of the community, dispensing childcare tips and looking after Gita’s eight-year-old brother, Chikku (Smith Seth), while Gita teaches at the local elementary school.

Kaveri Amma refuses to leave until Gita finds a husband, and Gita refuses to find a husband until she can secure the future of the school, whose building the village council would prefer to use as their own headquarters. Mohan’s vacation stretches to five weeks as he helps Gita, falling in love with her in the process. The longer he stays, the more he realizes what a difference he can make in a community where power outages are the norm and the Internet seems like the stuff of science fiction.

Swades is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who specializes in long runtimes. Yet, even at 189 minutes, the movie is so well-paced that it never feels slow. Within twelve minutes, Mohan is on his way to India. He learns of Gita’s problem with the village council at the hour mark. At two hours, he meets a destitute farmer who goes without a meal so that Mohan, his guest, may be treated according to custom, spurring Mohan to reconsider his plan to return home. New wrinkles appear in the plot at exactly the right times.

Mohan occupies an interesting position in the village. Despite his ethnic heritage and having spent his childhood in Kaveri Amma’s care, his years in America have made him an outsider. His advocacy for reform — greater access to education, especially for girls, and integration of the castes — appeals to the more liberal members of the village, but not the conservative council members. With time, Mohan becomes more of a diplomat and less of a dictator.

That process gets at the heart of Swades. Mohan finds his place in a community, using his powers to influence but not to force change. Mohan admits that his parents’ deaths closed him off to social opportunities in America. When he finally realizes around age thirty that he wants to belong, all of his peers have married and moved on with their lives, leaving him behind. Moving to India gives him a fresh start.

The theme of belonging is overshadowed by a nationalist tone that is sort of unnecessary, even if it was a popular movie convention of the time. Originally espousing American values like tolerance and ingenuity, Mohan falls blindly under his home country’s spell. His decision to stay is scored by the lovely but over-the-top populist song “Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera.” He tells his Indian-American co-worker at NASA, “You’ll have to come there and see things. Otherwise, you’ll never understand.”

This turn at the end undercuts Mohan’s rationale for returning to India. Rather than leaving NASA to use his skills to help his new friends and loved ones, the movie frames Mohan’s return as that of an ethnic Indian succumbing to the irresistible pull of his homeland. It’s a nice sentiment, but one that doesn’t ring especially true with what we’ve seen to that point.

That said, such patriotic sentiment is not unique to Swades, and it doesn’t diminish the universality of the desire for friendship, love, and a place to belong. Thanks to a terrific soundtrack by A. R. Rahman, touching performances, and a great screenplay — contributed to by a young Ayan Mukerji, who went on to direct Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai DeewaniSwades stands the test of time. It remains one of my favorite Hindi films.

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50 thoughts on “Movie Review: Swades (2004)

  1. Nicky

    This movie reminds me of my uncle who left NASA in the year 1999 after working there for about 9 years to return to India.I was too young at that time to comprehend its significance.

    Anyway i would like to point out that you have misunderstood a point partially w.r.t to the last but one paragraph.To elucidate,Mohan returns to India not only because of its irresistible charm but also equally if not greater to support his loved ones and to contribute to the village using his skills/knowledge.Some of the scenes in the movie which move him and also the climax upholds my argument.

    Lastly,it is my all time favorite Hindi movie.Thanks for reviewing it. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Wow, talk about life imitating art, Nicky! Your family must get such a kick out of Swades. 🙂

      My point is that Swades didn’t need the patriotic themes. I think it’s enough that the main character decides to live his life in service of a community of people he cares about. It would’ve been just as effective if he’d decided to move to a small town in Uganda or Colombia. I guess I was just surprised how overtly nationalistic the movie is, which I only really noticed on a second viewing. Regardless, I love this movie, too.

      Reply
      1. Nicky

        First of all apologies for the late reply ! Regarding life imitating art ,yes indeed we do get a kick out of Swades, Kathy 🙂

        Coming to the other point ,well i still disagree with your view on the patriotic theme of the film 🙂

        Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Mike. I’ve wanted to revisit this one for a long time. I’m glad it’s available for streaming on Netflix.

      Reply
  2. Keyur Seta

    Loved reading this, Kathy! So glad to see 4 out of 4 for this movie. It is easily one of the best films I have ever seen. Can watch it again and again 🙂

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Keyur! This is one of those rare movies that I think I could recommend to anyone, without qualifications. Also, I don’t own many Bollywood soundtracks, but this one is in heavy rotation.

      Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, ashokbhatia! The movie tugged at my heart strings, too, and I’m not even Indian! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Shah Shahid

    This is quite possibly one of my favourite movies of all time, and my absolute favourite performance of Shahrukh Khan. Never does he let his image or status take over the performance. The restraint and subtlety of his performance I think really does wonders for this movie. The bottled water, the quiet outrages at the social norms… brilliantly underplayed by SRK.

    Incidentally, this story was inspired by a real life article about 2 (or more) engineers actually doing the water set up at a village in India. From what I remember anyways.

    Great review Kathy!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for mentioning the bottled water, Shahid. It’s one of the great, subtle subplots in Swades. Mohan remains an outsider while he carries his bottled water with him. His pivotal turning point is when he buys a glass of local water from a young vendor at a train station, helping the kid while confirming his decision to move to India permanently. I don’t think there’s any dialog that mentions Mohan’s bottled drinking water, so the significance of the train station scene is only truly meaningful to those paying close attention. It’s a nice reward for engaged audience members.

      Reply
  4. Anushka

    Ah!One of the finest films.Srk was great in it.This and MNIK are two of my favorites of his performances.
    Ashutosh is a wonderful director.Lagaan,Swades and Jodhaa Akbar-Bravo!
    The soundtrack was fab!

    Btw,here is another absolutely marvelous version of ‘Yeh jo des’ .
    WOW!!!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      John, is this the ultimate Intro to Bollywood movie? I’m starting to think so. It’s so accessible.

      Reply
  5. Ayush Bhardwaj

    Hi Kathy, this review add up that you are one of the best Bollywood movie critic, your reviews are unbiased and carry (emphasize) even the minor details.I always follow your site after watching movie and your review never fails.

    Now this movie is my all time favorite, Shahrukh is phenomenal in this role. This movie carries so many iconic scene from which you can learn about India, the one where movie was playing on a white sheet, the upper caste people were sitting on the front side and and lower caste on the back side hence watching every scene in opposite view is so true, also loved the of filmization of last song, especially when he put his feet down on mat and misses the essence of putting it in the river in India.

    I am regular visitor of your blog but this is my first entry, I just want to say your heart is in the right side.

    thanks

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Ayush! The movie scene in Swades is really powerful. All that’s separating the two castes is a thin sheet of cotton, but it might as well be a brick wall (until Shahrukh tears it down, of course!).

      Reply
  6. arvind

    Hi Kathy, have u heard about this movie from kiran rao? Though i feel her movies are bit over rated but for this one i really have high hopes…

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for linking to the trailer, Arvind. I’ve been hearing good things about Ship of Theseus for a while now, but I didn’t realize that Kiran Rao had gotten on board. If she can help make this movie available to a wider audience, all the better. I’m looking forward to it.

      Reply
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  8. Krish

    “My point is that Swades didn’t need the patriotic themes. I think it’s enough that the main character decides to live his life in service of a community of people he cares about. It would’ve been just as effective if he’d decided to move to a small town in Uganda or Colombia. “”

    Miss, that was the best review I have ever read about a movie. It is wonderful. Although I am Indian and the patriotic theme strongly appealed to me, I agree with your viewpoint and am delighted that you mentioned it! 🙂 Thanks for posting!

    Reply
  9. Bidyasagar

    Its Dusehra and i just remember the Song “Pal Pal Hai Bhari”. Was watching it on Youtube.

    Well Swades did not earn much(i am not sure how much). But it is a Great Movie specially for Pro-Indian NRIs. And AR Rehman did a splendid work(as usual his patriotic song in Rang De Basanti and Swades is incomparable).

    This is a movie worth watching.

    The best song being “Yeh Jo Desh Hai Tera”

    i remember one line from it “Sab to Paliya aab hey kya kami….yu toh sare sukh hai barse par dur tu hey apne Ghad se……”

    Reply
  10. Bidyasagar

    Just MHO….well i wonder why it was not a Box-Office hit in India? 😮

    Hey Kathy did u know that the person who show SRK the way to the Village also stars in Sarfarosh/Krazzy4/Khata-Meetha….8-)

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for pointing that out, Bidyasagar! My brain does all it can to forget that I ever saw Krazzy 4 or Khatta Meetha. 😉

      Reply
  11. Bidyasagar

    Krazzy4 was not that successful….plus it was a remake of a Hollywood Movie(my mind is not working with what the movie was)….

    Hey Kathy any review for Lakshya??? 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Krazzy 4 is a remake of The Dream Team. It’s probably the weirdest remake choice in Bollywood history. Lakshya is in my Netflix queue, and I’m going to try and get to it during one of the upcoming weeks without a new release.

      Reply
  12. Bidyasagar

    Thanx Kathy once again for the name !

    Lakshya is a movie almost based on a true incident(though the names had been changed)…..the Songs are all inspiring(speciaaly for the Youths to join the Army)…..well looking forward to ur review

    Reply
  13. Ayush

    hi Kathy, I have a recommendation for you… “Do dooni chaar”. it is a 2010 movie, winner of best Hindi national film award….. distributed by Disney, brilliantly acted by Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh.
    it is a little gem, you will know when you will watch it..

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Ayush! I’ve wanted to see both of the 2010 Disney Indian movies — Do Dooni Chaar and Once Upon a Warrior — for a while. One of these days…

      Reply
  14. shrey

    This movie draws several parallels with Gandhi’s life….

    Both Mohan and Gandhi lived in a foreign country for years (Gandhi in South Africa).
    Both return to India only to discover the problems that the country is facing.
    Even Gandhi’s real name was Mohan Das

    Reply
  15. Ernest

    Wow that was unusual. Ijust wrote an reallky long commment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway,
    just wannted to say superb blog!

    Reply
  16. Jimit

    Hi Kathy,

    This is the first time I have read your review and I must say you nailed it. This is one of the best movies reviews I have read, ever ! I am inspired.

    Swades is one of my favourite movies and it continues to be a reminder that Bollywood has produced world class cinema apart from making tons of bullshit every year. This is the best review of swades that I have read. I think you have been really unbiased and have a straight from the heart view which totally shows. The last point about the movie being overtly national is a bit debate able because people who see the movie genuinely feel that patriotic spirit. I think its there because Mohan was being pulled by his community and his community was what represented the whole of India, the grass root for which he longed and felt a sense responsibility towards. But I do empathyise with you because in India I think the standard for something to be patriotic is to be ‘overtly’ or else its not. 😀

    Anyhow thanks for this review. I’ll be coming back for more. And lastly;
    I don’t know how this works, do you take requests? If yes, I would like you to review Love, sex Aur dhoka.

    Thanks,
    Jimit

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      “because in India I think the standard for something to be patriotic is to be ‘overtly’ or else its not.” This sums up my problem with the patriotic theme perfectly, Jimit. We get it already! 🙂

      Requests are often subject to availability of the film in the U.S. (along with other factors, such as my penchant for prioritizing ridiculous stuff like Creature 3D over other movies), but I do take them into consideration. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply
      1. Jimit

        You have access to to ‘Creature 3D’ and not ‘love sex Aur dhoka’ ??!!! That is exactly what is wrong with the world !! 😉 😀

        Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      “I cried because I thought you could do something. I didn’t cry because it depressed me.” Great interview. Just seeing the clips of Swades in it makes me want to watch the movie again!

      Reply
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  19. Nilesh'' wagh

    The peoples who have the soul can feel the movie,,,amazing performance by shahrukh and could be his best of career,,, movies cannot be made favourite by their business or by the names of stars ,,,swades has given some special feelings to us ,,,and also. Gayatri joshi is biggest part of this journey,,,loved elegance and simplicity,,,,,,can’t expect more than this movie,,and also we people from village areas can get a special test from this movie,,,I have seen it many times never feeled boared yet,,,amazing creation,

    Reply
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