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 Deewani — Swades stands the test of time. It remains one of my favorite Hindi films.