Swades – We, The People

(Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2004)


The Hindi epic Swades joins a crop of current releases (including The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) in which a road-movie journey leads to the discovery of a nation’s and society’s real conditions. It is easy to shed a tear over the film’s many poignant situations, but as socially-conscious drama it is less satisfying.

This is one of several recent Indian films that reflect on the experience of migration. Mohan (superstar Shahrukh Khan) works with NASA in America. His assimilation into his adopted homeland is so total that he appears to have forgotten almost everything about the culture in which he grew up.

Mohan goes back to the village of his childhood in order to convince his beloved nanny, Kaveriamma (Kishori Ballal), to relocate with him to the US. But he finds himself competing for Kaveriamma’s attentions with her daughter-figure, the headstrong local teacher Gita (newcomer Gayatri Joshi). Where Mohan stands for a progressive, technologically-oriented, globalised attitude towards his country’s future, Gita proudly upholds traditional ways.

But the trip Mohan takes into further regions brings home to him how much of India remains in the stranglehold of abject poverty. Depicting Mohan as an outsider, unaware of this truth, allows the audience to discover it alongside him.

Although there are musical sequences in Swades, it is not quite a typical Bollywood spectacle. Rather, it aims to be a heartwarming drama that touches lightly on issues of politics and populist pride (hence its subtitle: We, The People). Director Ashutosh Gowariker (Lagaan, 2001) uses a familiar sleight-of-hand to limit the depth of the movie’s engagement with such issues: the village in which the central action is set is rather less blighted than the rest of the land through which Mohan travels.

What Swades does share with many a Bollywood film is a leisurely approach to narrative. The plot stretches itself to around three and a half hours due to a predilection for interruptions and recapitulations – such as when Mohan returns to America, and virtually the entire movie seems to replay itself in his mental flashbacks.

© Adrian Martin December 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search