This week's top pick is a drama from one of Bollywood's foremost directors, released in 2004. "Swades", directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, is the story of one man's journey from USA to his hometown in India, where he realizes that his heart never left his motherland. Starring Shahrukh Khan, this touching drama exemplifies why Gowariker is one of his country's most gifted storytellers.
"Swades" follows Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan), a brilliant NASA scientist on the verge of a major breakthrough. His pet project - Global Precipitation Measurement - is about to be launched, providing valuable data on water resources around the world. If successful, it will be able to address issues related to water shortages around the world. The culmination of his life's work, Mohan's latest endeavour would put a fine cap on his career.
Mohan feels something missing in his life however, a void that money and success are unable to fill. After coming from a small village in rural india, had lost touch with his roots. Now he feels a yearning, which prompts him to return home to visit Kaveri Amma (his childhood nanny who was like a mother to him) with the intention of bringing her back with him. But what begins as a brief excursion turns into a life-changing experience, as he finds himself deeply affected by the people and vice versa.
In the Caribbean we have a saying, "My navel string is buried here", which essentially means your birthplace will always be your true home. It's a feeling that many Caribbean persons - like myself - have felt when living in foreign countries and it's the same sentiment that guides Gowariker's direction in "Swades". With rich depth of feeling, he conveys that spiritual connection and longing for your homeland. The tone is understated throughout, while the images wash over you with genuine warmth. The camera captures the village in all its simple unblemished beauty, carrying us along as Mohan explores its tranquil waters and expansive landscape.
Indeed, the cinematography gives us a strong sense of place but most of all, the film shines because of its attention to the people. From the moment Mohan arrives, the beautiful screeenplay attunes us to their lives. Like his Oscar-nominated "Lagaan", Gowariker again displays a deft understanding and empathy for the struggle of India's rural societies.
I always approach uplifting dramas with skepticism towards the glorification of poverty, but all my cynicisms were quickly alleviated with this story. The central conflict of "Swades" boils down to whether Mohan will leave his important job and First World affluence for the charitable cause of providing a better life for the underprivileged, and the writing gives this decision all the complexity it deserves. In fact, one of the film's most triumphant scenes comes when Mohan lays into these humble people for their backwards views towards women's education, the outdated caste system and general socioeconomic inertia. In a lesser film the scene would come across as overly judgmental, but in this case it's just the jolt that the film needs. Culture and tradition is nice, but when it hinders progress, it needs to be re-evaluated. I loved that the film doesn't ignore this amidst it's pervading sense of nostalgia and patriotism.
Of course, the story becomes entirely predictable in the end. Like most commercial Bollywood films, there's also a romance that steals focus from more interesting characters and plotlines. Along the way however, the ever reliable Shah Rukh Khan and the gentle direction from Ashutosh Gowariker ensures this narrative is a smooth, pleasant ride. It's a true heart-warmer, and a smart one at that.
This film is part of my Bollywood marathon.