Ashutosh Gowariker’s Bollywood drama Swades: We, the People knits themes such as nostalgia, cultural identity, and duty to one’s country into a complex emotional narrative that is well worth seeing. Swades means “Homeland”. The movie’s plot centers around Mohan Bhargava, an Indian man and University of Pennsylvania graduate who works at NASA (played by Shah Rukh Khan). Although Mohan occupies a prestigious profession and has many material comforts in DC, he begins to find that his life lacks meaning.
Mohan constantly worries about the wellbeing of his childhood caretaker, Kaveri Amma. Mohan feels he has failed her. Mohan remarks to his friend Vinod that Kaveri Amma was “like a second mother” to him: she helped raised Mohan as a child, and helped console him after the death of his parents. Because Mohan became caught up in his job, he lost contact with Kaveri Amma. Overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and concern for Kaveri Amma, he requests to take a two-week vacation to India to search for her. Mohan ends up staying in India for much longer.
After Mohan traces Kaveri Amma’s location back to a small village, Charanpur, much of the movie focuses on the budding romance between Mohan and Gita (Gayatri Joshi). Gita is a well-educated woman from Dehli who runs the local school. As a teacher, Gita works to empower Charanpur’s villagers through education. Gita stands as a symbol of women’s empowerment: She strongly believes in gender equality, and refuses to let marriage get in the way of her work.
Swades presents its viewers with poignant representations of romance, cultural identity, and rural village life in India. Both Shah Rukh Khan and Gayatri Joshi give outstanding performances in the lead roles of Swades. The dances are well choreographed and the songs are well-orchestrated. The cinematography is masterful, and includes visuals highlighting India’s extensive natural beauty, as well as Charanpur’s village life. Gowariker’s portrayal of Charanpur’s Dussehra festivities is particularly striking, providing non-Indian viewers with greater insight into India’s vibrant Hindu religious culture. Additionally, Gowariker does an excellent job of highlighting the cultural dissonance Mohan experiences as an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) upon his return to India. Lastly, Swades is filled with emotion, as its characters are confronted with many difficult choices.
Gowariker also highlights many challenges that Indian society continues to face, including gender inequality, poverty, political backwardness, and the caste system, whose dictates remain especially prevalent in rural India. Yet, the film’s overall message is optimistic. In Swades, Mohan inspires Charanpur’s inhabitants to take agency in improving their daily living conditions. Through this example, Gowariker signals to his Indian viewers that they have a collective responsibility to serve their country: instead of continuing to blame the state or each other for their problems, they too must mobilize at the grassroots level to achieve tangible change.
Swades is a must-watch film with many layers of meaning. Despite its three hours and thirty minutes of runtime, the movie passes by quickly. There is never a moment that feels unnecessary, and the film is sure to leave an indelible impression on any viewer.