Another film review: Swades

Swades was one of the most hyped Hindi films of the year. It has some merits, but it is essentially a rather grand failure.

Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, who also wrote and directed the international hit Lagaan, this was expected to be a big hit both in the international and domestic markets. Like Lagaan, the film had a huge budget. Also like Lagaan, there is a pointedly "uplifting" message about Indian society (the film's title means "one's own country," and is an allusion to a famous anti-colonial agitation in Bengal in the early 1900s).

The premise of Swades is a little hard to swallow. Shah Rukh Khan plays a NASA engineer in Washington DC, who goes back to India to find the nanny who raised him after his parents were killed in a car accident. He finds her in a small village in Uttar Pradesh, cared for by her daughter Gita (Gayatri Joshi -- a fashion model making her screen debut). He wants to bring her back to the U.S. with him, but along the way he falls in love with Gita and takes an interest in furthering the Development of the village.

Positives: The emphasis on caste, merely a token presence in Lagaan, is here spelled out in much greater detail. Also central to the film are the many difficulties involved in bringing modern amenities to India's backward villages; one of the climactic moments in the film involves the installation of self-sustaining electricity. (Just as the NASA framing of the film seems to be an allusion to deceased astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the hydroelectric power sequence is certainly an allusion to Narmada.) And there are a couple of dynamite songs ("Yeh Tara Woh Tara") from A.R. Rahman.

But here's where it gets odd. More than Lagaan, this film feels like an old-fashioned 'social reform' film from the 1950s. (One thinks of the paeans to collectivized farming in Mother India, for instance.) Swades argues for: do-it-yourself Development, take Repsonsibility here and now, and don't stay Abroad too long making money. Nice sentiments, all.

But those sentiments seem to be out of touch with today's audiences. In an era of video-phone underage sex scandals, making a film this self-consciously naive seems risky, if not stupid.

Lagaan was equally preachy and hackneyed, but it had cricket for its saving grace. (There aren't very many Hindi movies that involve the sport, oddly enough; it was a novelty in more than one sense.) Perhaps it can be said that Swades fails because it has a picturesque village in need of Uplift without a cricket match at the center to divert audiences from all the heavy dogmatism.

That's not to say I don't agree with the idealism of Swades. I myself share many of those all old-fashioned sentiments...

And I think the recent explosion of concern for the victims of the Tsunami within India shows that civic responsibility is very much alive and well there.