There is very little doubt that Ashutosh Gowariker is one of the most interesting, and courageous, film-makers of modern India. He has made unique, daring films on lesser told stories. Unlike the trendy candy floss romances and gangland violence, Gowariker, at-least in the best of his films, goes to the villages. And Gowariker’s idea of village is not an array of wavy mustard fields and ancient spiritual values. In both his masterpieces Lagaan and Swades, he has depicted an Indian village as is.
The stories of both Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004) depend greatly on the feats one man – the protagonist. In Swades, Shahrukh plays Mohan Bhargava straight from the gut, and surprisingly avoids his trademark hyperactive mannerisms, his abrupt delivery, and refrains from flashing his dimpled cheek to win our sympathy. Similarly Aamir Khan, in Lagaan, sheds his early childishness and plays a whole new avatar – Bhuvan. What more? In both films we have a female lead who, far from being merely a visual accessory, is a woman with her own mind (which in itself is quite revolutionary for its time and place). However, there is a stark difference between the way both the films address similar problems.
Lagaan, as a film is strongly political in nature, which Swades is not. It is understood, that, for a director, bringing up political and social issues in a period drama, and addressing them, is much easier. In Lagaan, the cricket team consists of representatives of various groups of rural poor, and this includes a sikh, a muslim, and a dalit – there is tension over the inclusion of the dalit, which Bhuvan has to overcome. One may argue that the dalit is included in the team not for his ability, but his disability, and that he is never asked if he wants to be in the team, so his subjectivity is erased. Well, it must be understood that the dalit here suffers a double handicap, physical and social, which only heightens the significance of his achievement.
Well, our team wins due to three outstanding performances – the dalit’s hat-trick, the muslim’s heroic knock, and the protagonist-peasant’s century. Politically speaking, Lagaan is, in essence, a Gandhian film. Not only is the struggle against the colonial oppressor entirely non-violent, but the possibility of a violent struggle is not even considered. Also, the insistence on unity across classes of the colonized against the coloniser is, at-least in India, a Gandhian thought. Yet, of course, Lagaan is far from being a revolutionary film – it is a charming fantasy tale that at-least gives glimpses of a Gandhian utopia.
Swades, on the other hand, tries hard to stay apolitical. It is a essentially constructed around a successful man’s personal struggles, and his love for one’s people. While brilliantly touching upon some pressing issues, our protagonist – and the film in general – avoids confronting them head-on. Hence sending dalit children to school becomes a painless, friction-less affair. Mohan undertakes a long journey at the end of which he meets an emaciated peasant family, on the brink of starvation. Moved by their plight, Mohan gives them some money – this is the last we hear of them.
Mohan eventually builds the power generating plant with local help, but when it comes to buying the pipes, the turbine, etc, Mohan makes trips to Delhi and withdraws money from his account. The villagers only contribute labour. In other words, the villagers get power through an act of philanthropy, without having to struggle for it. All of this happens at the fate of one NRI – who makes a fortune in ‘god’s own country’, and returns to swades to become a one-man, foreign-funded NGO. While Lagaan constructs its narrative on political mobilization, Swades depicts the creation of what the World Bank may call `social capital’ 😉 While Lagaan builds on the political possibilities, Swades, in-spite of showing one man’s struggles and eventual greatness, shows personal limitations, thereby staying realistic.
It must be understood that both films, inspite of having similar setups, are very different – which address similar social issues through different mechanisms. While one speaks of ‘collective-struggle’, the other builds on ‘self-struggle’ (a huge debate between lok-sangharsh and aatm-sangharsh exists between the followers of the two sects in the hindi marxist literary community as well). Making two successive films on two contradictory lines of thought, with such brilliance, is indeed praiseworthy. A feat, which, Gowariker, must be remembered for.