Swades — A Review

Fiction often captures, if only unwittingly, a few truths very elemental to the real world, and movies seem rather accurately to abide by this inevitability. The apperceptive filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri once opined that movies were ever reflective of such societal state of affairs as were topical, and that this fundamental relationship between fiction and verity was unchanging. As India felt gradually the national invigoration that its economic liberalization brought forth, its societal attitudes changed; if not in full measure, certainly substantially.

Swades, gracing the movie screens in the early 2000s, was amongst those that reflected the dawn of a new hope, of healthy optimism, that the very first century of the new millennium could be ‘India’s century’. For, after decades of appalling penury, the hope in the emancipation of which was reflected in quasi-Marxist undertones in movies depicting the noble-hearted penurious rebelling against opulent tyranny and structures of authority, the new movies signified the aspirations of a steadily growing middle class, as the doors of global professionalism opened to India, its economy now liberalized. Yet, in a wise, Swades was beyond its time, and may indeed be said to have had foresight, which rendered it somewhat different from numerous other contemporaneous films.

For it is the tale, amongst others, of an Indian named Mohan working in the United States, in an organization of enviable global renown, NASA; yet who in his heart is an Indian, who has forgotten not the by-lanes of his childhood home in Uttar Pradesh. Long have his parents departed, and he is worried about the well-being of his nanny Kaveri Amma who had nurtured him in his childhood. With the success of the first phase of his project, he is permitted a few weeks’ leave, and he travels to India. Learning there that Kaveri Amma no longer resides in her old-age home in Delhi, he proceeds to the village in Charanpur in Uttar Pradesh whither she had gone.

It is an emotional union with both her and his childhood friend Gita, who runs a school in Charanpur and has devoted her life to accustoming the village to the importance of education, particularly of girls — an uphill toil in a village gripped by the vices of caste and religion. Her ardent belief in women emancipation and gender equality attracts a like-minded Mohan, who, moved by the caste-induced penury of a man who owes money to Gita, discovers within him the passion to work in pursuit of the welfare of Charanpur. He manages to extend his leave by three more weeks, and uses the time to set up a hydroelectric power generation facility to resolve the frequent power cuts in the village.

Yet, as his leave approaches a close, he is repeatedly called by NASA officials back to the United States given the critical stages the project finds itself in. Mohan finds himself in a quandary; he wishes to provide for Kaveri Amma and moots to her the idea of moving with him to the United States, but she declines, stating that it would be difficult for her to adapt to a new country at her age. Gita, having dedicated herself to the welfare of Charanpur, also declines, her blossoming relationship with Mohan notwithstanding. Downcast, he returns alone to the United States, where he yearns to return to India.

The story, however, is brought to an uplifting end, as he manages to return to India permanently after the successful completion of his project, securing a job at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre which also permits him to work with NASA, not having forsaken the village where he had discovered his passion to work for the disadvantaged.

In our country, no stronger retrograde forces than caste and religion exist, and this was not lost in the tide of optimism that India’s liberalization brought with it. Yet, with the trend of a consumer-driven economy fast changing the national mood, the earliest movies reflecting these changes were naturally driven to regard flashy NRIs as protagonists. The rich were not villainous by default as numerous movies in previous decades were wont to depict. The allure of foreign nations and of concededly inept imitations of American accents seemed to sweep the middle class. While not appearing overly critical, it could nonetheless be said that the movies were therefore not wholly reflective of reality.

Indeed, it is not a hallowed duty of movies to strive to reflect reality. Those, however, that did so could be said to have been, in a wise, bellwethers of new cinema. In retrospect, Swades seems to have foreboded the renewed emphasis on eradicating social evils that defines much of today’s discourse, sixteen-and-a-half years after its release. No longer does urbanization seem sufficient; social problems are inseparable companions in the voyage to economic prosperity. The merits of apportioning the amount of focus to social rather than economic woes are, naturally, subject to debate. Yet, the ultimate ardour of attaining a better life requires of us the ability to craft varied perspectives judiciously.

Movies, being fundamentally emotive and impressive with their vivid imagery, are in likelihood much more efficient than books in crafting perspectives. Swades succeeded in that aim with resounding success.

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Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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Samved Iyer

Samved Iyer

Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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