Friday, September 30, 2011

Swades (2004): A beautiful, well-rounded image of nationalism

Hello, all. I’ve been a tad absenteeish lately, but I’ve been super busy. Even now, I'm popping in briefly. But to my sheer surprise and joy, the blog for the newspaper has been doing well (actually drawing more hits than any other blogs on the site) despite some controversy/attacks made on me that I won’t even dignify by mentioning the details. I also want to thank all of you readers for helping us soar past the 10,000 views to this blog. :)

While I haven't had time to watch anything new lately, I still have a brief backlog of films that I watched before I canceled my Netflix subscription out of frustration with their poor business practices. I also have some films that I’ve seen part of but can’t post about — like Maine Pyar Kiya, which I’d started watching on YouTube until the subtitles inexplicably cut out halfway through the movie.

But anyway, here’s one I watched a few weeks back and have only a little to say about.

Swades (2004)

Synopsis: Mohan Bargava (Shahrukh Khan) is an NRI living in the U.S. working for NASA. Lonely in the U.S. (given that he’s an orphan), he decides to take time off to return to India, which he hasn’t visited in 12 years, to find his old nanny Kaveri Amma (Kishori Balal) and bring her back to the U.S. In her village, Mohan finds several social and living-conditions problems and also reunites — and reconnects — with his childhood friend Gita (Gayatri Joshi), a spirited school teacher who dislikes Mohan’s Americanized ways.

I was initially somewhat reluctant to watch Swades. The description sounded supremely boring (and I believe the exact way things went down was that Papaya read the description; I said, “That sounds boring”; she said, “It’s SRK”; and I said, “Hmm, well add it to the queue.”), but it had SRK (remember my insane impulse to watch through his films?) and Netflix thought I’d like it.

Turns out that I did like it more than I was expecting to, and not just for Shahrukh. The film has a rather mellow, laid-back feel to it that seems to grow on you. Is it one of those films that wowed me? No. Did it make me smile and make me think? Yes. It has an almost understated simplicity to it that’s quite beautiful.

I also had moments where I thought the Indian nationalism was going to get to me. Maybe it’s because criticizing the way that nationalism (“the story a nation tells about itself,” as one of my professors defines it) is constructed as a concept has been a rather large part of my literary studies, but nationalism is sometimes hard for me to stomach, especially when I’m trying to watch a film for enjoyment and not to pick it apart. I knew from the moment in the beginning of the film where Mohan listens to an answering machine message that says his request for citizenship has been approved that this was going to be a movie where a man “regains” the national identity he’s lost and renounces the one he’s adopted through osmosis. In effect, the NRI is going to realize that, living in America or not, that I is still his identity — he’s still Indian. And of course, I was wary as a patriotic American of how much America-bashing would be entailed in that realization.

It turns out that it actually wasn’t what I was expecting. Part of Mohan’s eventual decision to return to living in India is a decision to change the problems he sees for the better. Having been educated in America, Mohan is critical of or even outrightly against caste discrimination, apathy toward education, child marriage and reluctance to change. This plays on the stereotype of liberalized thinking from living in America, which is something that often bothers me, but it comes with a valid dose of logic. Mohan doesn’t seem to tout it as his Americanized ideals; he’s simply resolute in his feeling of what is right and what is wrong.

Similarly, I found it refreshingly different and honest when Mohan responds to the elders’ claims that India is clearly the best by acknowledging that while certainly on an upward arc, India still has a great many problems to fix — the “developing nation” issues, if you will. And the great thing about it as a whole is that these issues are many of the ones he decides to fix when he returns permanently to India. That to me is a beautiful and self-aware affirmation of nationalism: My great nation has issues, but because I love it, I’m going to tackle them.

And much to my surprise, Mohan actually sticks up for America (though we know he won’t choose it in the end). When the leaders of the village jokingly but gustily pronounce that India is the best because of it has culture and heritage that’s lacking in America, Mohan decidedly renounces their idea and states that simply because America’s culture is not like India’s doesn’t mean that America doesn’t have culture, heritage and rituals. Ironically I think Mohan understands this much better than a lot of Americans; I can’t help but feel that there’s often a sentiment that white Americans don’t have culture (or at best have the Hollywood and mass media form of culture), a sentiment I thoroughly despise as a proud Southerner from a distinct and rich cultural background.

I loved this scene. Really did.
But onto less ideological things. I liked Gita (Gayatri Joshi) and her spunk, though sometimes she became oddly mellow. Similarly, I loved the pairing of her and Mohan when they had friction and disagreement, but it faded too quickly into bland mush.

The cast of supporting characters — aka the villagers — however, is very much spicy and loveable. I don’t think there were any useless characters or ones that you didn’t develop a feel for by the end of the film, though at moments I wished there were less of them to keep track of.

It was also quite nice to see Florida apart from Miami shown in a film. I’ve sadly never been to Kennedy Space Center, and now… there, well, isn’t as much point in going there. But still, it's part of my Florida just the same.

Lame way to represent that you're a globalized man,
but that there is Kennedy Space Center in Florida!
I will say I had my moments where I doubted the validity of Mohan’s science or of his commitment to science, as much as the film tried to make him rely on his science. For one, the filmmakers seemed to forget that he was an aerospace engineer working for NASA; "Yeh Tara Woh Tara," a song about the stars (which I actually rather liked along with the rest of the gorgeous music in this film), was the only real throwback to what should have been his love of space and the stars. Instead, his only real “science” while in India is to build the reservoir, which has nothing to do with aerospace. What's that? I'm picky? Yes, I know, unfortunately. But it did bother me.


  1. Hi, great post, and great track record with 10,000 views! I think the link between Mohan's research career and the engineering project he carries out whilst in India, is 'precipitation'. His new satellite will be able to predict rainfall whilst his hydro-electric dam and turbine will help those for whom lack of it is a problem. In addition, we are shown his original love of astro-physics. Whilst he has to work at more pragmatic applications of it in his actual career, we see that a passion for the subject is still there in the way he shares his knowledge with the village children. That's why people leave industry to go into teaching.

    When I saw the photo of Mohan and Gita up there, I thought you were going to mention the steamy lunghi/dhoti scene! This picture doesn't show what is going on down below - which is that Gayatri has her hands down Shah Rukh's pants! Not only that, she is one of the few actresses to be in a scene where Shah Rukh takes his shirt off, prior to Om Shanti Om. He is learning to have a wash from bucket. Wetness and toplessness, both! Yet, he still won't kiss on screen!

    Good luck with your other blog. It gave me a better idea what to show my pupils when they next come over for a Bollywood evening with their mums.

  2. I don't think that rainfall was the village's problem; the source of water came from a spring, which would mean that they always had water. The purpose of the dam and turbine was to generate electricity. Completely separate problem. It's an engineering problem, yes, but it doesn't have to do with precipitation. And I was also kind of waiting for him to burst into Gita's school and start teaching kids about science, but I don't know if he ever actually did.

    And I should have mentioned that scene more! I was like WHOA when it actually happened, and the one where he was taking a bath from a bucket with Gita right there as well. Very much out there for SRK, I thought. He's so conservative for the most part, but that was definitely suggestive at the least. But I really did like that scene.

    And thanks. :) Good luck with your Bollywood evenings. I wish I could have a Bollywood night to introduce some of my friends to the greatness of Bollywood.

  3. I've tried a Bollywood night like that with one or two of my friends, and mostly they liked the film, but still never watched a Bollywood film again. I wonder, why?

    Anyhow, it's been a long time since I saw Swades, but I remember having similar feelings as you - unsure at the beginning, but it's Shahrukh, and then... nice!
    One of my favorite Bollywood songs of all time is "Yun Hi Chala", by the way, though I don't think this soundtrack is one of Rahman's best.

    Well, I'd like to rewatch this one very soon.

  4. I really love this film. I thought it was so simple and clean-cut in its approach, and it did have a very nice message.

    It's funny, I've never thought about the aerospace and reservoir thing and sort of went along with it. I will definitely notice that more now. Having said that, I think "Yeh Tara Woh Tara" is one of the most inspirational songs ever in the sense of how it affects both children and adults, and the concept ofcourse.

    Great review and film :)