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Director : Music : Lyrics : Starring :
A. R. Rahman
Shah Rukh Khan, Gayatri Joshi, Kishori Ballal
Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Somewhere in a village in northern India, a train brings the troubled protagonist Mohan Bhargava chugging to a halt at a godforsaken station. A little boy runs along screaming, "Water for 25 paise."
Mohan, who has never touched anything but mineral water in India, buys the water...probably contaminated but still water that belongs to his soil, his country....
The life-defining moment in Ashutosh Gowariker's eagerly awaited follow-up to "Lagaan" is so sincerely sublime and so intricately poignant that it brings to mind some of the most tragic interludes on the vicissitudes of Indian poverty, as seen in Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" and Bimal Roy's "Do Bigha Zameen".
"Swades" is a unique experiment with grassroots realism. It is so politically correct in its propagandist message that initially you wonder if the government of India funded the director's dream.
But, no, this neo-classic, conceived and designed as the great Indian journey into the heart and soul of poverty, is funded entirely by Gowariker's idealism.
It's a work that's as simple, lucid and lyrical as a tune sung in repose by that minstrel who sings not because he must but because he knows no other thing.
There's an enchanting intimacy to "Swades" that invites you in without trying. The plot is so obvious that you wonder why an ambitious, commercial behemoth like Gowariker would want to make a film about a young, highly successful Indian expatriate's rediscovery of his roots!
Once the director sets off on this journey of self-discovery with his protagonist, he doesn't flinch from the sheer transparency of his familiar yet fascinating tale. Often in this long and finally deeply fulfilling voyage you wonder what could possibly have prompted the director to make a film that doesn't pull any punches, resorts to no gimmicks and chooses to stay supine at a time when cinema has become hysterically over the top.
As Mohan takes a homesick journey from his cushy job in NASA in the US to a village near Delhi to meet up with his foster-mother (Kishori Ballal), we often finds him in situations that could eminently qualify as clichés on patriotism.
But "Swades" avoids being a 3-hour-15-minute long flag of nationalism.
There're hardly any hysterical highs (not counting the grand moment when Mohan unleashes water-generated electricity) or looming lows in the storytelling.
The format adopted by Gowariker is akin to a TV soap. Life flows effortlessly and fluently along with the multitude of characters creating an elaborate drama conveying the opposite of the two other notable NRI-returned-home films "Pardes" and "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge" with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead.
If the other two films were giddy, glamorous celebrations of patriotism, "Swades" is far more austere and comprehensive in its view of India's acute need to recognise its weaknesses and strengths and act accordingly...and urgently.
Parts of the film are patently polemical. Gowariker stops the narration to let Mohan lecture the characters on why we as a country haven't been able to provide food and education at the grassroots level. The passionate dialogues by K.P. Saxena ring true even when their righteousness threatens to pitch the words from the pulpit.
Gowariker isn't scared of his idealism getting the better of his cinematic impulses. It doesn't adopt any of the technical methodologies that a multimillion epic must necessarily adopt in order to spin a marketable web of eyeball-arresting images.
"Swades" is, in fact, rather casually shot in parts. The sections at NASA are particularly lacklustre, and one wonders how far cinematographer Mahesh Aney is to blame for this. The grace of Mohan's journey back home is obtained in the way the character responds to the socio-political stimuli provided by the great Indian nightmare - as opposed to the great American dream.
There's a long passage where Mohan journeys to a wretched village to meet an impoverished family. The whole sequence where the head of the family narrates his woes to Mohan even while being hospitable to him is so idealistic, your heart reaches out not only to the characters but also to Gowariker for making a film so stripped of cynicism.
The romantic liaison between Mohan and the spirited feminist Geeta is given a shaded treatment, never overpowering the larger more dominant themes in the script. Debutante Gayatri Joshi, though a tad too glamorous to be the new age Jaya Bhaduri is one of the many refreshingly underexposed actors in the film who add to its alluring authenticity.
But it's Shah Rukh who dominates the proceedings. Standing at the centre of what's unarguably the most 'un-cynical' film of our times he strips away the glamorous veneer of his recent characters to play a guy who's completely credible.
Never before has he conveyed so much pain through his eyes. To say he feels for his character is an understatement. To say that the film allows him to finally come into his own as an actor is more like it.