For this week’s #ThrowbackThursday, we’re throwing it all the way back to 14 years ago to delve into the legacy of Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Swades,” which still hits close to home for South Asian immigrants in different ways.
Although it released in 2004, “Swades” resonates with audiences even today, especially if you’re living away from the motherland. It’s a simple film that relies on invoking your patriotic and nostalgic emotions through the lens of protagonist Mohan Bhargava.
Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan plays the lead, giving us one of his most nuanced performance to date. Mohan is an assimilated and well-adjusted Indian-American who works at NASA. He finds out his U.S. citizenship application is approved on the death anniversary of his parents. It’s an emotional moment for him and he reflects on his childhood, remembering Kaveri Amma (Kishori Ballal, flawless in this role), an older woman who nannied him and took care of him but whom he hasn’t thought about in years.
In order to remedy this, Mohan takes a trip to India and the fictional village of Champaner to find her with the goal of bringing her back to the U.S. After all these years, Mohan wants to take care of her. It’s also a way for him to fill up the loneliness in his life because despite a cushy job and big house, he’s alone. Kaveri Amma is the friendly face, the thread that connects him to his roots and his family.
Mohan’s trip to Champaner is nothing like what he imagined. Kaveri Amma doesn’t instantly agree to move with him. Not even close. As elated as she is to reunite with him, she now lives with Geeta (Gayatri Joshi), a school teacher, and her younger brother Chiku. Kaveri Amma is beloved not just by Geeta and Chiku but by all the villagers. She helps Mohan integrate into their life while he tries to adjust to his new surroundings.
Three of the biggest themes that “Swades” tackles from this point onwards are education, poverty, and the lack of electricity in the village. Geeta wants to open a new school and ensure the girls get an equal right to education, the village has a big electricity problem in that it’s always coming and going, and the nearby farmers are struggling to make ends meet.
Mohan, using his NASA expertise and with the help of strong-willed villagers, helps build a dam that in turns helps maintain electricity. He also works with Geeta to go from house to house and motivate family heads to send their daughters to school. In doing so, the two (obviously) fall for each other. Luckily, the film doesn’t dwell on unnecessary romance plots but Mohan’s love for Geeta plays a big factor in his own life decisions.
In the film, director Gowariker and cinematographer Mahesh Aney focus on the subtle and the apparent to tug at your heart strings. From the scenery of Indian villages, the focus on home-cooked food and the masalas to the poignant conversations about the pros and cons of immigrating to another country versus contributing to your own, it all comes together to give us a dream ending, one that may not be so easy to achieve in real life but aspirational, nevertheless.
The ending, without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen it yet, isn’t a big twist. It is, however, the kind of happy ending many South Asian immigrants might still hope to get. If not, it still makes for one hell of a fantasy scenario.
One of the most delightful parts of “Swades” is its music, courtesy of the genius that is A.R. Rahman. Whether it’s the peppy “Yun Hi Chala Chal Rahi” that plays while Mohan takes a scenic route to reach the village or “Yeh Taara Woh Taara” which plays when along with some kids, Mohan entertains the villagers when their movie night plans fall through. Each of the songs help propel the movie’s themes.
None does it better than the soulful “Yeh Jo Desh Hai Tera,” which is a ballad about how no matter where in the world you live, your home country will always be just that…home. It’s sappy and sugary but it’s still relevant. The song is beckoning whether you heard it 14 years ago or whether you listen to it now. In many ways, the song encapsulates all the points “Swades” is trying to make.
The movie will remain remarkable despite Gowariker’s many contributions to Indian cinema, including “Lagaan” and “Jodhaa Akbar.” “Swades” might not be as fancy or as showy as the others but it still stands out for having a global resonance.
You can also throw it back to “Swades” by streaming it on Netflix.