“Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” – Adlai Stevenson
The first time I watched Swades, during its theatrical run, it worked on a surface level. I loved the subtlety in the storytelling and the performances, but as an engineering student harbouring dollar dreams, I laughed off Mohan Bhargav’s decision of coming back to India as the creative liberty of the filmmaker. Years later, when I watched Swades as an onsite developer working in Australia, it became much more than a movie. It became a reflection of my own emotions at that time. I felt exactly what the character felt. In an act almost as dramatic as that of the lead protagonist, I left for India to smaller pay packages but more comforting pastures. Not with the noble intentions to change things but to calm my rocking state of mind, which only seemed possible after being back in the land where I belonged.
If I had to pick one movie from Hindi cinema (and we have made many) that comes to my mind when we mention patriotism, it would be Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades. The answer to the same question might have been Border, if asked in the ’90s. But with age you realize that for the common citizen, patriotism, like most other emotions, is looking inwards, not across the borders (which are protected by far braver souls). Swades to me represents two key things that are missing in today’s populist version of patriotism: nuance and scope of discussion. For patriotism in its truest meaning is attachment to the homeland. Attachment that comes from a sense of belonging. Something which brighter exchange rates and a fresh set of passports might not be able to compensate for.
As the film begins, Mohan is working relentlessly to launch satellites into outer space but comes home to another expanse of nothingness. There is a void in his life that he thinks might be filled by bringing back a remnant of his childhood, Kaveri Amma, his nanny. Thus begins his journey back to the motherland, first to Delhi, and then to an obscure village. From here on the movie could have easily taken the poverty porn route but it rightfully shies away from romanticising it. It shows you things as they are, so you are impacted the same way that Mohan is. Agreed that at places it does overplay the background score to tell you what you should feel but that is a minor flaw in an otherwise fine movie. Amidst the chaotic functioning of the panchayat, the absence of basic resources and the quaint set up of the countryside, Mohan goes beyond his caravan and bottled water and gets a feel of the land and the people. Yet the beauty of it is that instead of fleeing these less fortunate parts of his country for good, it cements his connection to the roots in a way his upbringing in an upper-class household in Delhi never could.
To further understand the significance of Swades, picture this: Mohan Bhargav goes to any town/village in India, circa 2020, and gives his ‘main nahin manta hamara desh sabse mahaan desh hai, lekin hum me kabiliyat hai mahaan ban-ne ki’ speech. In the best case, he is labelled an anti-national and generations of his family are threatened with graphic takedowns on social media. in the worst case, he is instantly lynched to death. That is the world of binaries we are in today. But Swades was made when, a decade post liberalisation, a migratory generation left Indian shores in search of better prospects. Like the migratory birds that keep coming back to their origin, this was a generation torn between a better lifestyle and a sense of belonging. This was also a time that had the space for discussion. Things can only improve when they are talked about. Patriotism without critical discussion is jingoism.
When Mohan does finally decide to move back, he is not chasing a pipe dream of turning a saviour of the downtrodden. That is not a load his shoulders can carry. He has realistic plans of exploring options in his field, like moving to Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre and executing his plans of improving the village on the side. Anything else would make this a fantasy fare. Swades works within the realms of reality and achievable resolutions. Patriotism in the movie, as it should be in real life, is acknowledging what one’s homeland lacks and loving it with all your heart despite these shortcomings. That is the only way one can move beyond commenting anonymously on social media and contribute in whatever small way towards improving things. Swades is the journey of Mohan Bhargav moving past his outburst of emotions to the tranquillity of a lifetime of devotion. The beautiful truth is that this country has historically proved naysayers wrong (including one Churchill who gave impossible odds for this “anarchy” to survive) because hum me kabiliyat hai mahaan ban-ne ki.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.