Friday Classics: Swades, True Happiness Comes From Working Together to Do Good

Reflects on Life was talking about this movie in the Wednesday Watching post and suggested it for a Friday Classic.  Which made me realize I hadn’t actually written about it yet.  I think it’s one of those Big movies that I was avoiding, ones that are really good, and I also really like and I want to be careful to explain why I like them in a way that makes you like them too, not just appreciate their quality.

Ashutosh Gowariker started as an actor.  He was an actor in TV serials and art movies, and he met Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan when they were fellow struggling actors.  When he was ready to make his first ambitious crazy dream of a movie, he went to Shahrukh first because he knew him better (one thing I read said they were roommates during the shoot of the TV serial Circus).  Shahrukh turned him down, gently, and so he went to Aamir and Lagaan happened.  After Lagaan, Ashutosh could have made anything he wanted with almost any star.  And he chose this story and this star.

Image result for swades poster

Lagaan was about living in India before it was India.  Aamir’s hero didn’t have a loyalty to some greater nation, he didn’t even have much loyalty to his local Raja.  His bond was with the men at his side, the village he was born in and the people of that village, struggling to survive together.  Over the course of the film, slowly his worldview was expanded.  He welcomed in non-villagers to the team, from the Sikh former military man to the white woman who helped him learn the game.  His identity was forged as his world-view expanded.

Swades is the opposite.  In today’s world of great Nation States, borders on a map that are supposed to define your identity, passports and jobs and all the rest of it, the simple sensation of “this is my place, these are my people” can be lost.  This is a story of someone journeying back to that simpler sense of identity, finding peace that he had lost without realizing he had lost it.

Shahrukh is the perfect hero for this role.  He is associated with modernity, urbanity, and the West.  It is hard to imagine him going back to life in a village, or coming from a village.  If he had played the lead in Lagaan, people would have laughed at the idea of him praying for rain, or wearing simple sandals and speaking broken English.  This movie does not demonize people like him, the ones who will never be truly comfortable in a dhoti or without internet.  But it suggests there is a middle way, you can be modern and forward thinking and also love your people and your community.

 

That’s the biggest and most radical message of Swades.  Shahrukh’s character is given two choices, to be like most of the village elders and sit back and talk about “culture” and think loving your home means never trying to change it.  Or to be an outsider, who can’t see the beauty of the place and refuses to become part of it.  And he says “no”, he doesn’t give up all he has learned from outside the village, and he doesn’t give up the village either.  He stays, and he works to improve it, loves it enough to make it better.

That is why I love this movie.  That, to me, is patriotism at its most basic level.  It’s not about waving a flag and talking about how amazing we already are, it’s about looking for those places that aren’t so amazing and then rolling up your sleeves and digging in to make them go away.  It’s about looking at where you are right now, in this place and this time, and thinking about “what can be better?”  And then, “what can I do to make it better?”  And then doing it.

(I gave this version because it has subtitles.  Shahrukh’s song is important here, Sita (India) is waiting for a Ram to save her, and Shahrukh says that we are all Ram and we are all Ravan.  When mercy, truth, and intelligence cast out hatred and ignorance, Ram is defeating Ravan.  That’s what makes him a hero, and makes them all heroes.  Anyone who in any small way casts out hatred from their community, is a Ram)

 

 

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This is a film with an odd slow start.  There is no one dramatic moment, we come in at the culmination of a lot of small moments.  Shahrukh is a successful scientist living in America.  He has a big apartment, modern conveniences, respect at work, all the things that are supposed to make you happy.  But he only has one friend, his fellow desi NASA scientist.

This is a life that is familiar to me, living in America.  I see it in desi men all the time.  Not so much the women, women would be less likely to be sent overseas all alone, and if they are, they have the social skills to make their lives happier.  But it is still possible.  It’s the flaw in the whole “study hard, go to school overseas, become a success” Indian life plan.  It’s a good life overseas, but it’s a very lonely life.  Especially if you have spent your life studying in preparation for this life instead of making friends, if you have spent your life in families and schools where friendships and relationships just happened without effort.  And if you are from a whole other country, never really feeling right in this new place, never feeling at home.

But you can’t go back.  That would be admitting failure, admitting that the goal you worked towards wasn’t enough to make you happy.  And often it also means that you would be letting down all those people at home, the ones who count on you to send money back to them.  This is the misery that Malayalam films are just beginning to dig into with their looks at the life of the overseas workers in the middle east.  But those are the jobs no one particularly wants, the laborer jobs, the ones you stumble into by luck not the ones you study for, not the best and the brightest kind of jobs.  You keep them and you keep working for the sake of the money that goes back home and everyone knows it.  But these jobs, the IIT graduate full ride scholarship overseas and then a work visa and a prestigious position, these are the jobs that are supposed to guarantee complete happiness and satisfaction.  And they don’t, any more than any job can.  Probably less than any job can, if you remove the prestige and the money, what you are left with is a young man suddenly cut from the warm embrace of a doting family (you need a strong family behind you to succeed in school) and thrust overseas to a completely different world and a completely different people with no skills to support him outside of those he can find in the books he has spent his life with.

There are plenty of these young man who manage to make their own way.  Usually by finding a new family, marrying someone in their new country or returning home and marrying one of the many eager young women who dream of going overseas.  Once you have a family, you can participate in the new community of your new country, Indian diaspora social events based around children and couples, you have a new way to make friends and a new world opens in front of you.  But then there are the ones where that doesn’t happen.  Where they never quite manage to break outside of themselves and make new connections, or see the way other people are reaching out in their new country in new ways to make those connections.  Turn down the invitations to have a drink after work or join the company bowling league and get marked off as standoffish, dropped off the list of social options.

It’s an odd situation, because usually the ones to travel overseas are the ones who want to go, the ones who have that urge within them to adventure and something new.  Who are able to find a new home and new people where ever they go.  And there are plenty of those young Indian men too, ones like Abhishek in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, entrepreneurs who spent more time planning schemes and finding money and making connections than studying in school.  They survive and thrive overseas, while the lonely scholars, the ones who are supposed to do so well, slowly whither away, turn inward, disappear from the world.

That’s a really long background, but that is the background Ashutosh manages to draw in with a few quick strokes.  Shahrukh’s character has retreated into himself slowly over years living overseas.  He made friends in college, but somehow not since then.  And most of the people around him have dropped away, leaving him alone in his apartment with his new technology and other toys.  His only friend is the other option, someone who is indefinably more comfortable in America.  He is married, he has a family here.  He tries to give advice to Shahrukh on how to find his own peace, but he can’t really.  They are fundamentally different, he is someone who can adapt to any situation, and Shahrukh is one who will slowly whither away outside of his home soil.

And so Shahrukh decides to go searching for something that will satisfy him, without quite knowing what it is.  He has had a life plan laid out for him, a familiar life plan, study hard, get a scholarship overseas, study harder, get a good job, and then….?  He’s reached the end of hte plan and doesn’t know where to go from here.  So he goes back, thinking about the last time he was happy, when he was young and loved by his parents and his nanny.  His parents are dead, but he can find his nanny.  Perhaps by doing that, he will somehow find himself again.

(It’s a strange thing, that Shahrukh gives a ride to this wandering Fakir while he is still trapped in the cocoon of his modern RV.  But it is also right, because they are both wanderers, both searching for enlightenment in this moment)

As I write this out, I am realizing this is one of a series of roles in which Shahrukh’s characters struggle with some kind of ill-defined unhappiness.  In Jab Harry Met Sejal, a very different character is dealing with a very similar problem.  He left home with a lot of hope, went overseas, and as the years flowed by realized he had lost a part of himself somewhere and didn’t know if he could find it again.  In Billu, he left home and became a movie star, but had no friends, no one who truly knew him.  Those roles stand out, but a similar kind of sense of loneliness, of loss, permeates Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Mohabbetain, Chak De India, Fan, Jab Tak Hain Jaan.  There is a certain kind of loneliness, the man who has achieved everything but still wants a family, which sneaks through from his reality to his film roles if there is the smallest opening.  And if there is a requirement of the character to have that strange melancholy in him, as in this one, it comes flowing out and cannot be stopped.

And so this is a hero that we immediately understand.  And the joy of the film is watching his huge gaping holes inside slowly be filled by the two women who understand him.  And by the people around him that they put in his way.

Shahrukh is not a “savior” in this film.  He is one of a community that are already working together to save themselves, he just joins in and puts his shoulder to the wheel along with them to shove the cart out of the mud (just now realized what that metaphor means!).  Gayatri Joshi is another type, a more unusual type, which we can recognize.  She’s too strong, too intelligent, to be pushed into the limits that Indian society makes for women.  It’s not that she fights against them, not exactly, it’s that she looks to high over them for them to even be visible.  She lives in the village of her family and the house of her family, she runs her parents’ school and raises her little brother and takes care of her beloved old family friend, and she does it all because she likes doing it.  She is not the woman worn down by burdens that are beyond her we see too often in film, she is the woman who sees a path in front of her and challenges in her way and digs in and enjoys them.  Gayatri is already saving her village every day, because she doesn’t know any other way to be.

And there are others.  The Panchayat is useless (of course, stupid Panchayats.  If I’ve learned anything from film, and from news stories, it is that the village Panchayats tend to be regressive and entrenched and very very slow to grasp any new idea.  There are probably wonderful progressive ones, but they don’t get films made about them or news stories written).  But there is an old man, a former freedom fighter who Gayatri brings in to tell his stories to the children in the school.  And Shahrukh’s Nanny and her best friend, an old Muslim woman, who give wisdom and support and advice to the women of the community.  And Rajesh Vivek, the village postman, who is eager to lend his strength to any scheme that might better the community.  And Daya Shankar Pandey, the lower cast man who has big dreams and big energy and is quick to seize any opportunity.  They are the ones who carry all Shahrukh’s schemes through, Ashutosh makes sure we see that.  Daya travels with him to talk to the farmers and lower casts on the outskirts and convince them to attend school.  Rajesh Vivek goes above and beyond to help him get internet access and information he needs.  And Gayatri is the one who shows him the way, not through long speeches but through letting him see what is happening and the manner in which to improve it.

(Shahrukh sings the song, but it is Rajesh and Daya who take down the screen dividing the lower caste children from playing with the others)

Gayatri and Shahrukh’s romance is different than any other romance because it is not about love as a journey towards anything else.  They go into it knowing that it will probably never be anything more than it is.  Gayatri has her home and her life and will not be leaving it.  And she would not ask Shahrukh to leave his life, just for her.  They are two people of equal strength and intelligence.  And equal independence.  There is no guilt over leaving someone broken hearted behind, or worry over hurt feelings at the end of it.  Just peaceful happiness with what they can have while they have it.  No worry for the future because they knew they will both be fine, too old for simple broken hearts, too centered for passionate love affairs.  It is love for the sake of love, nothing else.

Shahrukh’s journey is not about falling in love, even if there is a love story.  Shahrukh learns, over the course of the film, not that he has a responsibility back home, but that long term sustaining happiness only comes through doing good for others.  Through digging in and facing problems rather than running away from them.  This is not a journey he travels on alone.  Daya Shankar goes on it with him.  Daya Shankar would be one of those other immigrants, he first meets and befriends Shahrukh because he wants him to sponsor him for an American Visa, he has big plans to start a restaurant chain.  This is the kind of forward thinking energetic ambitious person who goes overseas and makes a success of themselves, personally and professionally.  Easily makes friends, finds a community, effortlessly finds success where ever they are.  But after working with Shahrukh to build a generator for the village, he realizes he would rather spend that energy to make his home better rather than spending it making money overseas.  And Shahrukh eventually realizes that all the logical reasons he should be happy overseas don’t mean anything, his true happiness came from making a difference in the lives of people right next to him.

This is a big complicated film with a simple idea at the center of it, that true happiness comes from being part of a community and working towards something better, together.

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21 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Swades, True Happiness Comes From Working Together to Do Good

  1. Geetha is such a departure from the Hindi film heroine. And Gayatri Joshi was so good in her debut & had great chemistry with SRK. I love this film for Geetha & the soundtrack. The shehnai music of Ye Jo Desh Hai Tera brings tears to the eyes. One of the very rare films where I found SRK hot🙂

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    • Geetha was so wonderfully put together. A woman who had a rich full life without marriage, but also wasn’t looking to avoid falling in love. The first time I watched this movie, I had such a hard time with the way their romance just kind of ended. He didn’t make a passionate speech asking her to come with him, she didn’t beg him to stay, and she also didn’t leap into his truck. I thought it meant they weren’t really in love. But now that is my favorite part of the film. They knew the other one, and knew themselves, too well to play that game. If he wanted to stay, he could stay. If she wanted to go, she could go. But they wouldn’t ask the other one to make that decision just for love.

      Also, Shahrukh in engineer-wear talking about education for all-HOT.

      On Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 1:51 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. The Dhoti scene 🙂 She was so mature and grown up about it, and loved a shy SRK. Sigh Gayatri joshi was such a good partner to him in this. And I loved the way they fight about the aunt. She’s not related by blood to either of them but they’re both so protective/possessive of her.

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    • I loved the way they fought in general!!!! It was unique, not that they were fighting because they were passionately in love, but that they were both passionate about similar things and that is why they fell in love. When Gayatri rejected the suitor who wanted her to quit working, he didn’t even fight back, and neither did his parents. They had no opinions on this issue really, not until she brought it up. But Shahrukh would have opinions because it is something he would care about. The same way Gayatri could have just let Shahrukh take the aunt away with him, but she cared too much for that, and he cared to much to just leave her there. Their arguments could flare up and die down without hurt feelings, because it wasn’t personal, it was just that they both cared intensely about the same things. And cared enough to be willing to think about and listen to the other and change their minds eventually, like Shahrukh deciding to leave the aunt where she was happy, or Gayatri accepting his help with her school.

      On Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 4:24 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Swades was one of the first movies I saw when I first started watching Hindi movies. I thought it was okay but also kinda boring at the time. I feel like this is one of those movies I need to rewatch.

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    • It’s a movie you have to kind of age into. I didn’t like it much when I first saw it, but every time I go back and watch it again, I find something new and like it more.

      On Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 8:17 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I am actually watching it tomorrow with two newbies. They are both environmentalists and political activists, and also neopagans. He has an interest in world religions. Plus, I just saw A.R. Rahman’s live show last night, so I get to hear his glorious soundtrack. Win, win, win.

    By the way, I miss being able to discuss a movie I just saw, mainly because I have not been to many movies in theaters lately. Maybe you can “assign” a streaming movie and give us a week’s notice so we can watch it separately and then come here to discuss?

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    • Oh, I like that idea! I like it when people can discuss a film, so I try to review films you’ve been talking about or I can assume most people have seen. But if there was some way to ensure everyone had just watched it, that would be even better. Hmmm. I will think on this.

      On Sat, Sep 1, 2018 at 12:45 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Swades is one of those movies I watched in a huge but very ordinary cinema hall, which meant cheap tickets and a varied audience (we were students so we love cheap ticket rates in theatres). I felt a general impatience towards the movie from half the crowd. While the other half, like me, was completely drawn in. There’s something about this movie that just makes my heart hurt in good ways and bad. It touches on certain very pertinent issues without going into the depth of it, which is fine because it chooses to acknowledge other relevant issues.
    But one thing I loved was the scene where Shahrukh talks about cultures. There is no one culture Is better than the other, it’s all different cultures and there’s good and bad in it all. It may not sound like a radical concept now, but at the time it was. It made me think. It still makes me think.
    There’s something about a movie that moves you and makes you think.
    Music music music. Sigh. I still can’t hear ye jo des hai mera without tearing up. Also the desire just go back home becomes the overwhelming sentiment.
    Every green characters too.
    Also yes I love Geeta. I loved the way they loved. I loved everything about her. She didn’t have to leave her life behind and go. He understood it. The desi friend casually says just ask her to come here. But Mohan wouldn’t really force her because he knows her. It’s beautiful.

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    • I forgot about that moment! He doesn’t even really give an answer to his friend, just doesn’t really respond. They had such a perfect understanding, he knew she could never be happy somewhere else and the village needed her. And she knew that if she wanted to go with him, she could, the offer was there without needing to be spoken. To actually have the conversation would be something a couple who didn’t know each other as well would do. There was no need to say the words aloud “I love you and I want you to come with me” and “I love you but I can’t leave here”.

      On Sat, Sep 1, 2018 at 1:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Thank you for reviewing this film. I knew you would give us a review from a sociological perspective in your singular way 🙂

    I’ve given my prior comments some thought and would like to revise them here. I said Raju Hirani should study Swades as a template for how to craft a social message film. But now I think Raju Hirani movies show lots of proof that they’ve watched and rewatched Swades as their template, esp 3 Idiots is proof of that. What is so parallel is the Odyssey-style storytelling – “show” us the hero’s journey, while adding in short vignettes from side characters he encounters along his journey, “telling” us their plights. The hero’s journey convey the social message, but the side vinlgnettes tell the audience in very clear expository style “why” the social message matters.

    Swades is still better than any Hirani movie, and they still have a lot to learn from this gem, but I’m going to redirect my criticism now to another auteur. Imtiaz Ali should study Swades as a template for how to present a self-actualization story in a clear-eyed well-paced way. While Gayatri wasn’t the lead, we were still given enough of her backstory and motivations to understand her POV and her love for SRK. Imagine if Deepika were fleshed out just a little bit more ala Gayatri, how much richer Tamasha would have been? Or if the second half of Tamasha was more clear eyed and committed to which self actualization story it really wanted to tell, instead if telling several half-heartedly. JHMS was definitely an improvement in both ways, I feel like Imtiaz might have watched both Swades and Before Sunrise to improve upon Tamasha in his storytelling, world-building, and intimacy.

    A lot of people I know watched swades in the theaters when it came out and thought it was slow and boring. But wasn’t it the first among the 21st century phase of modern-day social message movies from Bollywood? I’m thinking that after a decade of seeing subsequent social message movies like 3idiots, TZP, PK, Secret Superstar, and all the other films by Hirani or Aamir Khan, to then cycle back around to Swades now makes swades not only not slow and boring, but almost revolutionary in its simplicity and eminently watchable. Every second of this movie matters to the story.

    My favorite scene is when gayatri, as a stand in for the audience, asks “are you an astronaut?”, to which he replies that he’s just a project manager on a global precipitation management project. And Gayatri response mirrors the audiences. As in, yeah if you are an astronaut, maybe you need to stay in the usa, but if you are just a project manager, then why aren’t you here again? Plus with rain being so important especially in villages, maybe India could use his expertise.

    The music and especially the score is just so chill yet so evocative. The end credits score just does not leave you, long after you turn off the tv. I wish more mainstream movies utilized serene music like this.

    Finally I think it’s revolutionary, both a decade ago and even today, to not tell us how the love story “ends”. We get a wrestling match, and comfortable interaction with the love interest, but no wedding scenes, no flashbacks to key wedding moments or moving into a home together, not even a quick pan to a wedding ring on her finger or mungalsutra on her neck. Maybe he’s living in delhi working for the NASA equivalent that he earlier mentioned and just visiting the village, maybe they are married but living in two different places, maybe he brought internet to the village and now telecommutes… Who knows? I can’t think of another mainstream Bollywood movie that doesn’t “resolve” the love story.

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    • Thank you for your comments! Lots to think about.

      You are right, this is a perfectly constructed internal film. Similar to but more successful than JHMS. A lot of the criticism of JHMS seemed to be “nothing happened” or “what was the point”. And of course the point wasn’t what “happened”, a search for a ring or a chase through the streets or any of that, it was how it changed the characters. Swades is really the same, Shahrukh brings electricity to the village, helps keep the school going, sings a song when the projector breaks at film night. But none of that really matters, what matters is what happens to him on the inside, the slow realignment back to home. Only there is a perfect balance of making it FEEL like these things matter. They are interesting, they are challenges we care about, they have a goal and a resolution. They are a pleasing way to pass the time while we wait for the real narrative of the film, the internal one, to play out.

      As for weak heroines, even Ashutosh himself has fallen pray to that. Mohenjo Daro really irritated me, because there was this big build of her being the one to “save the city” and “make a choice”, and I was waiting for her to have a slow growth towards responsibility and understanding greater issues like Hrithik did, and then her character just sort of went flop. Versus in this film where we slowly come to understand Gayatri’s view and motivations and emotions. We are seeing her from Shahrukh’s eyes, she doesn’t necessarily get the big back story he does or anything, but she is still a 3 dimensional person. She is a teacher and loves her job and is dedicated to her school. And she also is interested in getting married, but not if it means giving up who she is. And she is the head of her household, raising her brother and taking care of her aunt. And we learn her personality, passionate about what she cares about, reserved, slow to open up to others. All of that is so much more than the usual heroine gets.

      And yes to the ending! It resolves the essential conflict of the narrative, Shahrukh needing to find a place to be happy and belong. He belongs now, that’s all that matters. And whether that means he and Gayatri are married, or will be married, whether he is living in the village or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he made his decision and has come home again.

      On Sat, Sep 1, 2018 at 4:24 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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