Patriotic films are a force of nature. Spread across genres are films like the Manoj Kumar and Dilip Kumar social commentary classic Kranti to the JP Dutta war epic Border and to the recent Meghna Gulzar spy thriller Raazi. These films are so popular that industries across languages religiously churn them out every year (two films of the genre have released this past week). It’s also fitting because India is a vast country with a rich history that stories from it (valour of its people and in essence the country itself) lend themselves very well to the medium. My favourite film of the genre is the Swades: We, The People.
Inspired by the lives of Aravinda Pillalamarri and Ravi Kuchimanchi, an NRI couple who returned to India, Swades is directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (after Lagaan) and stars Shah Rukh Khan as Mohan Bhargava, a scientist working in NASA, who returns to India after many years in search of his nanny, Kaveri Amma (Kishori Ballal). Upon finding that Kaveri Amma has relocated to a small village Charanpur, he decides to rent an RV and visit her to take her with him back to America. Upon arriving in Charanpur, he meets Gita (Gayatri Joshi) his childhood friend and the local teacher with whom Kaveri Amma now lives. He then spends many days in the village, initially struggling with the culture shock (he sleeps inside the RV because he cannot fathom sleeping in the open) and his own bias; he says ‘yahan kuch badalne wala nahi hai kyuki log badalna hi nahi chahte’.
However, he slowly comes to terms with the eccentricities (this gives space for the gentle humour that the screenplay nicely uses) and way of lives of the inhabitants. This slowly begins his transformation. He also falls in love in Gita because of her strong independence and her commitment to makes the lives of the village children better. The divergence comes when Kaveri Amma asks Mohan to go and collect the money from a poor villager who owes it to Gita and lives across the river in another village. After he reaches there with Melaram (Daya Shankar Pandey) and Nivaaran Shrivastav (Rajesh Vivek) he sees the dire condition of the man, refusing to take any money and decides to go back. In the outstanding following scene during the return journey, they reach a small station where a kid sells a glass of water for 25 paise. The kid requests Mohan to buy a glass and he agrees. It is during this moment that he self reflects, is completely emotional and is moved to such an extent (the transformation is complete when he gulps down the water) that he decides to do something for his own people. The rest of the film then becomes Mohan’s journey in improving the conditions of the village and eventually returning back to his motherland from America.
The film is different because it does not use the tried and tested route to communicate the message. Its politics is interested in humanity (the title of the film is representative of that), how we as people have created divisions amongst ourselves and it is only us who can remove those divisions. The film smartly says that you can be a patriot even if you are not a soldier. An excellent example of this is the scene preceding and the song Ye Tara Woh Tara itself. The villagers gather to watch a movie played through a projector onto a white sheet. But because there are caste differences, the people from the oppressed caste sit together on the opposite side of the projector (thereby effectively watching a reverse image). However, there is load shedding and the movie night is cut short. Mohan uses this opportunity to engage the kids and the villagers by singing Ye Tara Who Tara. With lines by Javed Akhtar like, ek na hum ho paye toh, anyay se ladne ko hogi koi janta hi nahi, phir na kehna nirbal hai kyun haara, the film through Mohan symbolically questions the notion of caste divide and its obsolete nature, simultaneously giving the lesson that people need to develop a scientific temperament and be curious. It is effective and engaging storytelling where the song propels the story forward. The entire album of Swades has these little gems which are put to extremely introspective and optimistic tunes by A.R. Rahman (my favourite being Yunhi Chala).
The casting is bang on. Apart from Shah Rukh Khan who is fantastic as Mohan, it’s the other characters who steal the limelight. Gayatri Joshi is brilliant as Gita (she brings the feistiness and contrasts Shah Rukh’s subtle Mohan very well), as is Kishori Ballal as Kaveri Amma who reminded me of my own grandmother in her mannerisms. Daya Shankar Pandey as Melaram, the local cook who wants to go to America and speaks broken English and Rajesh Vivek as the postmaster are perfect in their roles as good companions for Mohan. It is through them that Mohan travels through the village, understands the issues and ultimately realises that he is one of them. Even though Mohan is an outsider, both Melaram and Nivaaran, initially for selfish and then for noble reasons, never treat him as such, giving him the respect that he ought to get.
Swades is the rare film of the genre that has none of the jingoism/hyper nationalistic tone that has come to be a part of patriotic films of late. There is no bloodlust, no war cries, no fear mongering and no chest thumping about Mera Bharat Mahaan; in fact, Mohan in a telling scene says ‘main nahi maanta humara desh sabse mahan hai’. Swades is deep-rooted, looks inwards at our culture with empathy and tries to tackle the complexity of issues that sprout up at the grass roots. It is a triumph in accomplished storytelling that makes the viewer long and feel patriotic for their motherland, all under the umbrella and in the elusiveness of what we proudly call “home”.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.