A road half-travelled

Print edition : January 28, 2005

Swades, despite some outstanding sequences and good acting, disappoints because of its failure to confront politically the serious issues it touches upon.

THE story of Swades is simple enough. Mohan Bhargava is an Indian project manager working at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), young, successful, rich, and alone. Too alone. After his parents die in a car crash, he spends all his time working hard, climbing up the ladder of success, and in the process he neglects his nanny, Kaveri amma, who had loved him like her own son. He decides to seek her out, and bring her to the United States, where he reckons she can spend her remaining days in comfort. He traces her to a village in Uttar Pradesh. There, he encounters poverty, a couple of lovable, eccentric friends, and Gita, a city-educated modern young woman, who runs the local school. He falls in love with her. He also rounds up the villagers to build a turbine-powered electricity-generating plant, which solves the village's perennial power problem. When both Gita and Kaveri amma refuse to relocate to the U.S. with him he goes back alone, only to be pulled away by the call of the native land. He forsakes his career and returns home.

A scene from Swades.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Swades.

The film has some lovely sequences; for instance the scene where an old, ramshackle truck brings a Hindi film to the village. A makeshift screen is erected out in the open. People of the `upper' castes sit on one side of the screen, from where the projection happens. Those belonging to the `lower' castes sit on the other side, and therefore see the film as a mirror image. Midway through the screening, the electricity goes off. While the audiences wait for the generator to be hitched up, Mohan gives an impromptu lesson in star-gazing to the local children. The screen, which segregates the villagers, comes down, and children intermingle as Mohan sings.

Ashutosh Gowariker, the man who made Lagaan three years ago, is one of the most interesting, and courageous, film-makers in India. Unlike Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra, spinners of candy floss non-resident Indian romances, Ram Gopal Varma and Sanjay Gupta, voyeurs of gangland violence, or Yash Chopra and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, purveyors of ornate, opulent sagas, Gowariker, against the trend of the market, goes to the village. And even though it is hard to accept the picturesque Wai as Uttar Pradesh, Gowariker's Charanpur has a real feel about it. To his credit, he does not turn Swades into a paean to endless, undulating mustard fields and ancient, immortal `spiritual' values. Mohan, to the chagrin of the village elders, says that any country that has so much poverty, so much corruption and so much strife simply cannot be the greatest country on earth. Gowariker also creates a heroine who, far from being merely a visual accessory, is a woman with her own mind who refuses to compromise on principles. And, thank god, the film has no `item numbers'.

The best part of Swades is possibly the hero. For the past couple of years now, Shah Rukh Khan has looked the best he has ever looked. In Swades, he acts the best he has ever acted. He eschews his trademark hyperactive mannerisms, his staccato delivery, and refrains from flashing his cute, dimpled cheek to win our sympathy. He plays Mohan Bhargava straight, without frills, and from the gut. Fifteen years at the top is a long time, enough at any rate for stars to start believing that their mannerisms constitute great acting. It is therefore nice to see that Shah Rukh Khan has not forgotten how to act. He gets good support from Rajesh Vivek as Nivaran, the post master-cum-wrestler; Daya Shankar Pandey as Melaram, the enterprising cook who wishes to open a dhaba in the U.S.; Kishori Balal as Kaveri amma; and Gayatri Joshi as Gita.

AND yet, on the whole, Swades disappoints. It is too much of a bleeding-heart film. Newspaper reviewers have complained that Swades looks like a documentary. Which is odd, considering that the last few years have seen excellent and riveting documentaries - Michael Moore's films have been commercial hits, of course, but other films like The Corporation, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, The Take, and in India, Final Solution, War and Peace and others have dealt with complex issues and not treated them simplistically and pedantically. I am afraid Swades does.

The problem with the film is not that it looks like a documentary, but that it does not. It touches upon issues, without confronting them head-on. Mohan meets a Dalit family which refuses to send its children to school because they would not be acceptable to the dominant groups in the village. Yet, when the children do eventually go to school, it is a painless, frictionless affair. Mohan undertakes a long journey at the end of which he meets an emaciated peasant family, on the brink of starvation. Moved by their plight, Mohan gives them money and that is the last we hear of them. At a time that farmers are committing suicide under the burden of debt, one would have expected Gowariker to do something more with this family.

The theme of water runs through the film. Mohan works on a NASA project on water; he carries his bottled water everywhere; the peasant family is starving because of lack of access to irrigation; after his encounter with the starving peasant family, he buys a glass of water on the train and drinks it; the face of the water boy haunts him; and the turbine runs of water. Having come thus far, Gowariker could have built the central conflict in the film around a struggle over this natural resource, a struggle that has a global resonance today, from Columbia to Kerala, but he does not.

A publicity still of Lagaan.-

Lagaan.

The village panchayat is a model of local democracy, where dominant groups behave as benevolent patriarchs. When Mohan builds the power generating plant with local help, the first bulb lights up the hut of a poor old woman, not the home of the sarpanch. There is no government bureaucracy that tries to nip the project in the bud, nor any private contractors. And no one asks who will draw how much power from it eventually, and who will pay for its upkeep.

It is as if power is generated free, which, from the villagers' point of view, it actually is. Because when it comes to buying the pipes, the turbine, and other hardware, Mohan makes a trip to Delhi and simply withdraws money from his automated teller machine. The villagers only contribute labour. In other words, the villagers get power through an act of philanthropy, without having to struggle for it. The fate of the NRI - he either makes a fortune in America, god's own country, or he returns to swades to become a one-man, foreign-funded non-governmental organisation.

COMPARISON here with Lagaan is instructive. Forget that Lagaan was a more entertaining film, with more humour and charm. Swades may have benefited from a lighter treatment, since the bits where Gowariker uses humour are done well. The difference is more fundamental. Lagaan's triumph was a political triumph; Swades's failure is a political failure.

In Lagaan, faced with an exploitative and unreasonable colonial power, the peasant hero Bhuvan forges unity among villagers to resist the coloniser. His Team Champaner consists of representatives of various groups of rural poor, and this includes one Sikh, one Muslim, and one Dalit. There is tension over the inclusion of the Dalit, which Bhuvan has to overcome. When the Champaner eleven finally defeats the English, it is on the back of three outstanding performances: Kachra's hat-trick, Ismail's heroic knock, and Bhuvan's century, capped by the last-ball six. These feats are performed by a Dalit, a Muslim, and a peasant.

To be sure, there has been some criticism of the portrayal of the Dalit in the film. Essentially, this criticism is based on two points: that he is included in the team not for his ability, but his disability, and that he is never asked if he wants to be in the team, so his subjectivity is erased. On the first, one would argue that Kachra's disability should be seen as the physical symbol of his social standing; or, put another way, Kachra suffers a double handicap, physical and social. The fact of his handicap only heightens the significance of his achievement. Kachra is in line with a whole range of characters in literature, drama and film, where the weakest of the weak overcome their social and physical handicaps to accomplish heroic deeds: the eponymous hero of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the deaf-mute daughter in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage.

The second point of criticism is more valid. The argument here would be that Lagaan is, in essence, a Gandhian film. There are three elements to this. One, not only is the struggle against the colonial oppressor entirely non-violent, but even the possibility of a violent struggle is not considered. Two, the depiction of the raja as a closet nationalist is in line with Gandhi's insistence that the national movement should not extend to the Indian princely states. Three, the insistence on unity across classes of the colonised against the coloniser, and the relegation of all internal contradictions to that forever future moment of true swaraj. This political-ideological position is deeply contradictory, and necessarily involves erasures. In the film, these erasures are most evidently present around the character of the Dalit and the raja. Thus, for instance, we never learn what Kachra thinks about the match and his participation in it, and the question of what happens to him after the match is over is never considered. Similarly, the raja's closet nationalism puts a cloak on the collaborationist role played by Indian princes under colonialism. The point is not that these erasures are not present, nor that they should not be critiqued but that in spite of them, the film is actually quite remarkable in imagining a peasant-Dalit-Muslim combine leading India to victory.

Ashutosh Gowariker.-AFP

Yet, of course, Lagaan is not a revolutionary film, any which way one looks at it, and whichever sort of revolution one desires, red, blue or green. It is a charming fantasy tale that constructs a Gandhian utopia. No doubt coincidentally, Lagaan was released on the same day as that rather scary Hindutva-peddlar of a film, Gadar. In the face of fascist fantasies, even Gandhian utopia can seem like a voice of sanity.

In other words, in Lagaan you have what must be regarded as political mobilisation, while Swades depicts the creation of what the World Bank would call `social capital'. A community comes together to redress a local problem, but that local problem is unrelated to any larger structural problem of Indian society, politics and development. Mohan claims the opposite - that every local problem is indeed related to a larger problem - but does not care to tell us how. Rather, he puts it so vaguely - overpopulation, corruption, caste, etc., are all part of a seamless whole called India - that a high school student would do better in a debate. And the community that comes together to redress its problem does so on purely apolitical terms.

Swades purges itself of politics. That is its essential failure.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor, director, and playwright with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi. He works as editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi.

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