Monday, March 21, 2005

the singularge experience of Swades [march 18, 2005/march 20, 2005]

story and direction: Gowariker has his heart in the right place. As a screenwriter he needs to change his hat. With Swades he betrays an alarming inability to trim the fat off a film before shipping it to the theatres. Gowariker, in many ways, is like Karan Johar. They both work off templates of favourite ideas. While Johar converts clichéd elements of North Indian culture into a marketable packaged product, Gowariker chooses to appeal to the brain a bit, while hoping to make his work more widely accessible. Johar's efforts have met with success, but Gowariker still needs to work at it. Like Vishal and Farhan Akhtar he is imbued with a refusal to let the brain-dead needs of mainstream cinema govern the kind of stories he wants to tell. But unlike these two, he still faces problems with tightening his narrative and letting the heart drive the length of the film.
the music: All the songs are extraneous. Some of ARR's arrangements are rather irksome given the context of the songs (case in point, the percussive elements of saa.Nwariyaa saa.Nwariyaa). yuu.N hii chalaa chal is marred by length, the lukewarm execution (something that mars the film as a whole), the clumsy use of visuals directly complementing the lyrics (e.g. jaise ko_ii ga.ngaa me.n nahaaye), and an unsuccessful attempt to mix a diegetic track and real-time singing. One of the big losses to the narrative comes from the irritating ye taaraa vo taaraa. A crucial moment arrives near the tail end of the song (the projection screen is dropped and a first step is taken to unite two communities), and I have heard enough about this having gone unnoticed. The film deserved just one song, the wonderfully evocative yo jo des hai teraa, rendered with trademark élan by ARR himself. The accompanying visuals receive better treatment from the editing department to complement the song and its message effectively. aahistaa aahistaa did not make the final cut, and I must breathe a heavy sigh of relief on that note. I wasn't too happy with ARR's Filmfare-winning background score. A lot of it reworked the songs on the soundtrack, and there was just one cue that functioned like a background score should: when Mohan talks about his kaaverii ammaa and his neglect. The rest of it suffers from the unfortunate tendency of Hindi film background scores to compete with the narrative for attention.
the performances: Shah Rukh Khan easily grabs top honours with a restrained performance as Mohan Bhargava. There are the familiar elements seen in other performances of his, but there are moments that receive due restraint and care. The iconography of Shah Rukh Khan as a star helps the commercial angle of the film. But since I didn't see a cohesive push to make it commercially appealing, this aspect of SRK wasn't as important for me. The only downside came from inconsistencies in his character (accent, speech patterns) given the time he has spent in the USA. Gayatri Joshi scores over previous Gowariker find Gracy Singh in the looks department. She doesn't have much to do, and as the film progresses, she only makes her shortcomings (or the shortcomings of the role itself) more evident. No great shakes (no pun intended) in the dance department. Her contribution amounts to tons of Colgate smiles in the second half of the film. That's acceptable in a modelling stint or an ad film, but not in a film where you'd expect to know more about the character. Only subsequent films will tell us if she will prove to be as ineffectual an actress as Gracy Singh. The supporting cast features some Lagaan familiars, but everything suffers from the general tendency of the proceedings to be lukewarm.
the fat: Things that deserved to be trimmed were the exterior shots of the Air India flight, the song sequences (bar one), the whole raam liilaa sequence (thanks to Joshi's uninterested moves, and absolutely no effective soaring moments). And did we need two Will Smith-style bathing expositions of SRK?
the nice sequences: The argument over dinner about the Indian government and responsibilities of Indians; The sequence at Haridas's house; The sequence at the train station where Melaa Raam provides the fee for Mohan's first glass of local unbottled water (must note the attention to tiny elements like these about how Mohan's life has been altered in the USA). The film boasts another interesting expression of love (see also: Lakshya) when Giitaa tells Mohan that she has begun to love him. It is only destroyed by the introduction of yet another song (and that it featured my favourite hates Udit and Alka didn't help matters much).
the trivia: Gowariker manages to squeeze in lucky mascot Aamir Khan by employing the famous clip from Yaadon ki Baaraat.
the message: I will argue strongly that this is not a film encouraging expats to pack their bags and return to India. This is not a film about a 'reverse brain drain'. All it does is present the decision of one Indian who arrives at a very important decision and backs it up with some cogent thought. The case of Mohan Bhargava cannot possibly attempt to present a generic template for the lives of Indian professionals in the USA. The only message, if you are one who believes that a film without the customary naach-gaanaa and dishum-dishum must have a message, is that we need to be clear on the issues that trouble us. Mohan Bhargava is transformed in the film from being someone who has potentially escaped the issues that affect him dearly to being someone who finds a way to deal with them and tackle them head-on. There is no guarantee of success, but there is the consolation of having tried.
other pluses: the posters; the promos. Simple, elegant, and very becoming.
DVD boo!: Some sick mind responsible for the subtitling chose to use the King's English. Be warned: you will see a lot of thee, thou, thine, wouldst, and the like. Quite irritating really. And why can't these subtitlers get the English right? The English subtitles never match the English spoken on screen.

In summary, I can see why this movie would become fodder for middle-class conversations in the dentist's waiting room. I can see why this movie could not have worked in the cinema halls. I can only hope that Gowariker manages to marry his vision and execution in his next venture and give us a film that feels more strongly about its core issues, and makes sure we understand them.

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