I remember watching Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades in a packed theatre in 2004, possibly my first memory of a Shah Rukh Khan film in a cinema hall, that now-impossible community viewing experience essential to the cinematic medium. As a child of chaste Tamil Brahmin parents leading their lives in the heart of big bad North India, I felt a sense of connection with the immigrant Mohan Bhargava, a project manager for NASA in the US, who leaves his hometown in pursuit of his dreams. Growing up, I could always sense the alienation and loneliness my parents felt, leading lives away from their hometowns. Although successful and reasonably well off, the longing for home, and the desire to be among their own people, has never truly left. This unnamed void has been unconsciously passed down to us, their offspring, and we find ourselves simultaneously fitting in everywhere and nowhere. Mohan's caravan is too big for his little town, just like his ambition was, and just like his ambition, it can never truly be enough to make a home. Swades is a tale of homecoming, of rediscovery, a love letter to the idea of home itself.
As a child in the cinema hall, I felt a patriotism which cannot possibly be replicated by the government-mandated national anthems in theatres today. Swades showed us a cosy, gentle nationalism, a stark contrast to the raucous, dramatic variety to come in the 2010s. Here was an India that was chock full of possibilities for the hungry, scrappy youth, raring to make a difference, and – what was more – one didn't even have to leave the familiarity of one's childhood! Swades made ghar wapsi cool for an entire generation of young Indians.
I have always lived a caravan-like life, moving cities and rebuilding an entirely new life every few years. For me, watching Swades was like finding kinship with Mohan, in his longing for his roots. This longing is very subtly portrayed, yet it feels like one can almost reach out and feel it tangibly. It inhabits the screen, it pervades its characters, and it flows into the hearts of its audience. We see it in the cinematography, in the scenic beauty of rural India; we hear it in A.R. Rahman's lovely, earthy music.
At the centre of it all is of course, superstar Shah Rukh Khan, whose contribution to Indian cinema gets somewhat hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of his larger-than-life persona. Nationalist love and the immigrant experience are common themes in many of his movies, from Chak De! India (2007) to My Name is Khan (2010). The movie seems particularly relevant in this moment in history, as we, the generation that grew up with Swades, go through our own homecoming, in a pandemic that has forced us to move back to our childhood homes; I find myself thinking of Shah Rukh Khan's Mohan, and his affectionate and endearing look at India's peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. The citizenry of his hometown may be backward, irrational and rooted in casteism and superstition, but Mohan never once turns his nose up at them, never once treats his motherland with contempt. The supporting roles, be it the tender mother figure Kaveri Amma, young the new age feminist Geeta, the uber-cool wandering Fakir, or the loveable simpleton Melaram, are played by actors who treat their characters with warmth and respect, and one can't help but be charmed by Mohan and the India he inhabits. Mohan returns to India to visit the woman who raised him after his parents' passing, his bonds to her aren't biological. He wants to take care of her and take her to the US, but she refuses to go with him. His relationship with her mirrors his bond with his country, both accidental foster parents, both refusing to modernise themselves according to Western ideals. If Shah Rukh Khan could leave behind his dream life in the US to come back and serve his country, then so, it seemed, could we. If he could come back to support his Kaveri Amma, then we too could come back to help our ailing mother nation.
As we millennials return to the loving embrace of home amidst a global crisis, Swades serves as a reminder to extend our social media political correctness to our own homes, and treat our own cultures and nation with respect instead of the familiar childhood embarrassment.