Sunday, February 8, 2009

Swades: three-hour brain drain

Although certain critics and non-resident Indians may have loved it, Swades is predictable, preachy, and pretentious, argues Ali Rasheed:

Two months before the release of his latest film Swades, Ashutosh Gowariker was almost dismissive about its central message.

“I have nothing against people who go abroad to study and earn money” the director, whose Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar, told IndiaFM. “But what I am trying to say is that somewhere we need to pause and think about the country too.”

His film is anything but coy about its subject matter. Overtly preachy and sentimental about the issue of India’s brain drain, the film reeks of its own self-importance in everything from the tagline “we the people” in the poster to endless dialogues reinforcing its position.

Mohan (Shah Rukh Khan), a scientist working at NASA, takes time off to return to India to make up to his neglected foster-mum Kaveriamma (Kishori Ballal). He discovers her in the remote village of Charanpur, where she has made a home with a single, young teacher Gita (Gayatri Joshi) and her brother Chikku (Master Smith Seth). Predictably, Mohan reconciles with Kaveriamma, falls in love with Gita, builds a hydro-electrical power system for Charanpur, and then leaves for the US amidst much tears, mostly his own. But the pukar or call of the village and its inhabitants is more than a match for the penthouse lifestyle he has found in the West, and he soon returns to India, this time for good.

Clearly calculated to appeal to the nationalistic tug in the hearts of resident as well as non-resident Indians, an important market for Bollywood films, the narrative, nevertheless, abounds in gaps and fissures. For instance, quite why a country, which has so many engineers and scientists, needs to re-import a NASA scientist to build an HEP system is never made clear.

Gowariker also takes liberties with location. Charanpur, the fictional village of the story is supposed to be in Uttar Pradesh, a state consisting of plains, hills, mountains, and valleys, and peopled by a wide mix of ethnic groups. But the film was actually shot in Bahai, between Maharashtra and Panchgani, not too far away from Bombay.

“Gowariker’s village -- given its home-architecture, absence of law and order chaos, unsure accents --doesn’t seem to belong to UP to me at least,” an internet poster noted.

For whatever reason, Gowariker prefers to forgo the rich, dramatic physical and ethnic possibilities of Uttar Pradesh to construct a mundane village inhabited by stereotypical country bumpkins, few of who are anything more than caricatures.

These rural simpletons enable the film to draw cheap laughs and cheap tears at will. At one point, Mohan takes journey via a train and sailing boat to collect rent off a farming family living some way off. While cinematographer Mahesh Aney’s work here is breathtaking, it never rises above the picture-postcard level. Moreover, the poverty-stricken farming family is represented as little more than objects of pity designed to squeeze a few tears out of the hero’s eyes, and a few rupees out of his wallet.

As Mohan travels through India, the audience should believe that he is slowly falling in love with the country itself. But the passing images and the star’s performance fail to establish any meaningful connection, and Gowariker’s central premise remains unrealised, at least cinematically.

Instead, we see Khan struggling to rise above the particular brand of his star-persona manufactured with director Karan Johar in such films as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The same distanced, tongue-in-cheek, self-parodying performance surfaces occasionally, especially in the early sequences involving a visit by Gita’s prospective in-laws. Not surprisingly, the performances of the other actors, notably newcomer Gayatri Joshi, easily outshine the ageing superstar’s tired tactics.

Gowariker primarily relies on dialogues to state and restate his nationalistic agenda, as different characters take turns to preach it. The film occasionally even dips into clich├ęd Bollywood dialogues. When Gita asks Mohan to explain why he thinks she’s in love with him he says: “Your eyes tell me so.” Hindi films have time and again expounded the myth that when a woman says “no” she really means “yes”, an ideology that has also been used to legitimate rape and sexual harassment of women.

This seems out of place for a film, which in certain scenes appears to be trying to impart progressive social messages, including gender equality. “I was keen to make a film that had a message,” Gowariker told “Mohan is confronted with several social ailments: caste system, illiteracy, child labour.”

But the film does not really explore these issues; they are merely touched on in the dialogues. The issues seem to have been used to lend an air of importance to the film, rather than to genuinely critique convention.

A R Rahman’s music and Javed Akhthar’s lyrics are also subservient to the conveying of Gowriker’s ideology. The sentimental song “Yeh jo desh hai tera” a fine example of this, states in the most mundane and verbose way possible what the film has failed to convey cinematically: that the bond between the protagonist and his country outweighs everything else.

A large segment of Indian audiences, the most discerning in the world, has found Swades lacking in entertainment value. An internet poster summed the film up thus: “The story of Swades would’ve been ideal for a documentary, but for a feature film with a running time of 3 hour plus and starring the country’s biggest star, it just doesn’t work.”

Indeed the hydro-electrical power “success-story” in the film does seem an ideal pitch for an Azimuths documentary.

Even supposedly more upmarket, intelligent audiences are unlikely to take kindly to the film. One of the evils of filmmaking is to undermine the intelligence of its audience; by repeatedly preaching morality to them like a schoolmarm, Gowariker’s film may well end up alienating all sections of cinemagoers.

I watched the film at a Bombay multiplex only days after it was released (I was able to get tickets) and, to my surprise, found a few empty seats in the cinema. As the film played on the big screen and in Dolby Digital sound, the people sitting next to me spent most of the three hours sending text messages on their mobiles and chatting.

The only time they showed any enthusiasm was during the film-within-a-film sequence, when an extract of Nasir Hussain’s 70s cult classic Yaadon Ki Baraat came up.

(This article was published in The Evening Weekly on 17 January 2005)


Anonymous said...

stupid critic

Anonymous said...

filmmakers these days call film art if the film is slow and boring...a good review