Review of Swades*


This is a story of an idealistic NASA engineer, Mohan Bhargav (played by Sharukh), who decides to go back to his village to enable change.  In the village, idealism meets reality.  What seems like a simple problem a priori turns out into a major project due to the powerful social forces at work.  Mohan’s attempt to create a village school is a typical example.  Since upper-caste kids are not used to mingling with lower-caste kids in the classroom, this turns out into a project about caste relations.  Mohan ends up visiting the homes of villagers to motivate them to send their children to school.  Over time, Mohan overcomes many of the hurdles in his way and shows the villagers the power of science. 



The most important relationship in the movie is between Mohan and Kaveriamma, his childhood nanny.  She is much more than that to him, though.  In the grand tradition of Indian cinema, Kaveriamma is the ultimate loving mother figure that is the biggest reason for Mohan to walk away from a NASA career.  



Unlike movies from one generation ago that felt the urge to rant about Western morals (e.g. Purab aur Paschim), Swades presents the situation as a rational choice for Mohan.  He could either stay with NASA and have a great career.  On the other hand, he could return home, be with Kaveriamma, affect change at the microlevel and also find true love.  The choice is shown in simple terms without a sense of judgement.  The NASA option is never shown as being terrible and the movie, thankfully, does not waste time ranting about America or the West. 



Swades was a great hit with me.  But, it was a big flop in India.  The reasons for this are not hard to discern.  Swades describes an idealist whose reasons to come home are noble (love, service).   The current generation of Indians who return back are much more focused on building up lucrative careers in India rather than pursuing a fool’s errand in a dusty village.  So, the quest for change is lost on them.  At the same time, people who live in India do not relate well with movies about the angst of Non-Resident Indians.  So, Swades ends up being an idealistic story in a capitalistic time.  This particular reviewer lauds the movie maker for making its idealistic case.   



December 12, 2006

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* For Western readers, the term “Swades” is frequently associated with the Indian freedom movement.  It roughly translates to “our country”.  However, in the context of the Indian freedom movement, Swades was a term used to connote volition, self-determination and independence.  See this, for instance.