Happy birthday Ashutosh!!! I think Swades and Jodha-Akbar are probably tied for me for my favorite of your movies. Lagaan is whatever, Mohenjo Daro and What’s Your Raashee? are a mess, and I haven’t seen Panipat.
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.
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.