After the international success (including an Academy Award nomination) of Lagaan (2001), writer-producer-director Ashutosh Gowariker’s follow-up is at first glance a very different film: whereas Lagaan gave new life to the Hindi “historical” film by being located entirely in 1893 and in Champaner, an imaginary Indian village, Swades opens with a shot of the globe that zooms down into contemporary Washington DC, where its hero, so unlike the earlier film’s simple villager Bhuvan, is a manager working on NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement project. Whereas Bhuvan, lacking the ability to converse in English, nevertheless has to learn the wily ways of the British colonial rulers in order to literally beat them at their own game, Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), the hero of Swades, is apparently a fully assimilated, literally globalized scientist who skillfully handles a press conference in high-tech, jargon-laden English. And whereas Lagaan begins with the imposing voice-over of Amitabh Bachchan’s immaculate Hindi, that language won’t be heard in the “Hindi” film Swades for almost ten minutes, and then as hybrid “Hinglish” spoken by Mohan and his colleague Vinod.
But Swades soon draws Mohan back to his native India and to Charanpur, another imaginary village, in search of his beloved Kaveriamma (veteran actress Kishori Ballal, most notable in Kannada theatre, film, and television), the humble woman who raised him but who he has shamefully neglected following the death of his parents in a car crash when he was in college. Once the film adds a romance with Gita (Gayatri Joshi in her film debut), a village belle and schoolteacher of the feisty and independent sort, and begins to focus upon a goal (the generation of electricity from a local water supply) that brings the entire village together, the successful shadow of Lagaan falls more broadly over this film, despite the gap of a century between their settings. More ambitiously, both films seek to define “Indianness” through collective action spurred by a hero, but where the previous film required translation into the context of the present, Swades functions as direct commentary on current conditions. Moreover, whereas the earlier film depicted its hero and heroine as a Victorian-era Krishna and Radha, Swades relies on the now more ideologically charged invocation of Mohan and Gita as a modern Ram and Sita. (However, the requisite association of Shah Rukh Khan with the naughty boy Krishna is made here, albeit briefly, when he teases his “second mother” by identifying her as the god’s mother Yashoda when they meet again after many years. The romantic song, “Saanwariya Saanwariya,” will also later identify Mohan as Gita’s “beloved” “dark one.” On the whole, however, Swades represents another step in the relatively recent on-screen maturation of Shah Rukh Khan, who at age forty id finally shedding some of his popular persona’s persistent and even grating boyishness.)