It’s interesting to witness Ashutosh Gowariker and Farhan Akhtar, the two filmmakers who breathed fresh life and creative polish into Bollywood with their respective 2001 releases “Lagaan” and “Dil Chahta Hai,” both follow up such revolutionary, globally successful efforts in 2004 with earnest odes to their homeland of India. But while Akhtar stumbled into jingoistic, Hollywood-level flag-waving with his ambitious war film “Lakshya,” Gowariker’s “Swades: We, the People” gets his nationalistic message across with powerful understatement.
Subtlety nor modulation are not qualities one generally associates with Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, but even more than in his other film of the season (the epic love story “Veer-Zaara”), here he reigns in his usual (though often effective) histrionics to impressive effect as Mohan, a scientist working for NASA. Despite a skyrocketing career and prosperous life in the States, Mohan feels something is missing: namely, his childhood caretaker Kaveriamma (Kishori Balal). So he takes leave from an important satellite project to travel back to India to bring her over to America. But, of course, Mohan finds more than he bargains for in the poor village of Charanpur–and not just old friend Gita (Gayatri Joshi), who nobly works as a schoolteacher to try to bring about advancement in this remote, electricity-starved location.
The paces of Gowariker’s plot are as predictable and simple as they appear, so it is a testament to his and his collaborators’ talents that the film remains consistently engaging for its three hours. After successfully pairing then-newcomer Gracy Singh with established name Aamir Khan in “Lagaan,” Gowariker yields similarly winning results with the combination of Shahrukh Khan and not-unknown-for-long Joshi; their easy-going rapport keeps one interested in their developing relationship while their strong individual turns do justice to the sharply written characterizations. As in “Lagaan,” music duties fall to maestro A.R. Rahman, and freed from the period restrictions of his previous teaming with Gowariker, he offers a beguiling, infectiously eclectic selection of songs. Rahman’s wide-ranging score is just about the epitome of “world music,” and he tackles all the styles with flair, whether it be the thumping dance pop of Mohan’s road trip toe-tapper “Yun Hi Chala Chal” (“Keep Roaming”) to my personal favorite, Gita’s entrancing ballad “Saanwariya” (“My Love”), which improbably but seamlessly fuses traditional Indian percussion and instrumentation with UK garage/two-step beats.
No song quite packs the punch, however, as the climactic “Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera” (“This Country of Yours”), which not only exempliflies Rahman and Javed Akhtar’s mastery in film music but Gowariker’s skill as a director. Up until this point, the film is certainly enjoyable and involving enough as a story and general entertainment. But this song sequence–through its memorable visuals, bittersweet melody, and heartfelt words achingly sung by Rahman himself–brings all of Gowariker’s sentiments, the flavor of Charanpur and its residents, and Mohan’s spiritual journey and evolution to a culmination of unexpected and downright startling poignance. All of the little touches, including side character silliness, slow patches, or speechifying, suddenly assemble into a picture that is far more vivid than the sum of its parts. As such, the slow-burning “Swades” requires a bit of patience from its viewers, but such an investment is minimal when the payoff is richly rewarding.