It was a rare event for me – watching a Hindi film, and that too on the weekend of its release. But the unusual publicity stills of Swades and the buzz surrounding it, had peaked my curiosity. Luckily, J had extra tickets and I tagged along, despite the fact that it was a 10 p.m. show. My brain usually downs the shutters at midnight and everything after that is a blur.
But I had no problem staying awake, even though my neighbour on the left went into a mouth-agape slumber post interval. That’s one thing that can be said about Swades; it’s an engrossing film even though it proceeds at a bullock cart pace.
The theme of an NRI coming face to face with the real India has been explored before; in Hyderabad Blues, for instance. But where the protagonist of Hyderabad Blues feels disconnected and disillusioned, Mohan Bhargava of Swades gets into action right from the start. Whether it’s pulling down caste barriers, canvassing for education, bringing electricity to the village or charming the uptight school teacher, he does it all in fewer than 5 weeks. Hindi film heroes!
However, despite the crusading, Bhargava comes across as earnest and credible. He starts out as the unwitting do-gooder, but the turning point is when he goes on a journey and sees the poverty-stricken face of rural India. The scene which underlines his transition is poignant; the Bisleri-toting Bhargava buys a cup of water from a waif at a railway station, and tears roll down his eyes as he drinks it. The Non-Resident Indian finally becomes a part of the Indian reality.
But symbolic gestures are few, and the film does get rather preachy at times especially about Bharatiya parampara and sanskriti. But Bhargava echoes my sentiments when he tells the village elder who gloats about India having values and culture, ‘That’s what we always take refuge in.’ He even boldly goes on to say that India isn’t a great nation, but has the ability to become one. He lays bare all of India’s shortcomings, but most importantly, gets down to action. Like he says, everyone blames the system, but we are part of the system. So rather than passing the buck, he gets the villagers to be participate in generating their own electricity supply.
For once, it seems like reality has caught up Hindi cinema. No designer villages, no buxom gao ki goris doing ‘item numbers’, no photogenic mustard fields. The faces are real. The problems are real. The dust and grime is real, disconcertingly so. Only the frequent songs remind you that you’re watching a film.
It’s hard to imagine Shahrukh Khan minus the hammy, bumbling act. But his is an amazingly restrained performance in the film. As an NRI struggling to come to terms with an India stuck in a time warp, he is credible and endearing. I can’t say the same of the female lead though. Her manicured nails and dainty mannerisms stuck out in the ‘real’ picture. Call me picky, but Bhargava’s nanny, Kaveriamma, also struck a discordant note. A fine performance notwithstanding, I couldn’t help wondering what a south Indian was doing in a distinctly north Indian village. Or did I miss a national integration message here? Hmm… maybe I should leave logic at home next time.
Minor peeves aside, I liked the film. The director has bravely sidestepped many of the clichés one has come to associate with Hindi films. I liked the fact that Bhargava chose to leave the village despite being guilt-tripped about sanskriti and parampara. And that his decision to return isn’t impulsive but well thought through. The supporting cast is excellent, especially the postman and the dhaba owner. The humour isn’t forced, thankfully. Little gems stand out. For instance, the nanny asks Bhargava, ‘Tumhara nasha kaisa hai?’ and it turns out she’s asking about NASA!
Images from the film were still unspooling in my mind, when we trooped out of the theatre at 2 a.m. It was extraordinarily late, even for a late night show, but that’s because the 10 p.m. show had started at 10.45. The reason for the delay couldn’t have been more ironic - a power failure during the earlier show!
Yeh jo des hai mera…