Ashutosh's return to the roots

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 17, 2004 04:52 hrs

It’s not the freedom that matters. It’s how one exercizes it. After Lagaan he could have done anything. Made any movie he wanted at any budget he wanted without thinking twice…or even once.

But Ashutosh Gowariker, or Ash as friends call him, chose to return to the roots…one more time.

Swades is a subject that other successful filmmakers would think twice and thrice before attempting. After all, Indian moviegoers don’t want parables on rural India. Sure Lagaan proved all the naysayers wrong. But what about the other bucolic sagas that came and went? During the last one year village-based films like Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost and Mudda: The Issue were summarily rejected.

Oh, Ash could’ve done anything. But he did Swades. A very simple story about very simple values wrapped in a homespun azure hue rather than the fashionable pastel and flamboyant colours that the more with-it filmmakers favour these days.

But that’s Gowariker for you. He has never done the expected. “When I made a film set during the British Raj with cricket at its background people thought I had gone mad. They probably think so again.”

As I stare up at the simple posters of Swades with Shah Rukh Khan caught against a skyblue backdrop I am reminded of what the poet-actor Haridranath Chattopadhyay once said. “It’s so simple to be difficult. But it’s so difficult to be simple.”

Gowariker’s minimalist expressions in Lagaan where the characters appeared to be giving expression to the sweetest songs of life, went a long way in making it one of the most long-legged film of our times. Its impact continues to be felt even now, three years after its release when the Lagaan bat has been sold at an unheard-of price.

That brings me to the inbuilt danger of making a film as reverberant in its impact as Lagaan. Ramesh Sippy is to this day known as the director who made Sholay. Mehboob Khan was stamped as the director of Mother India although he made a number of other successful films.

But who remembers Mehboob’s swan song Son Of India? Or the fact that K. Asif made a successful film called Phool before Mughal-e-Azam? Or that Gowariker made Pehla Nasha with Deepak Tijori in the lead, and Baazi with Aamir Khan (inspired by the Bruce Willis film Diehard) before Lagaan?

Does the large looming shadow of Lagaan scare Gowariker? I don’t think so. Even while the earlier film was spreading its tentacles far and wide, the filmmaker had quietly moved on. First, he made a move away from his domineering producer Aamir Khan who tends to… well, kind of take over every project that he features in. If not, then there’s a fall-out with the directors. Remember Aamir’s ugly run-ins with Ram Gopal Varma and Mahesh Bhatt after Rangeela and Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin?

There was no break-up with Ashutosh Gowariker. Everyone presumed Aamir would naturally star in Gowariker’s post-Lagaan endeavour. Gowariker turned out smarter than expectations. He wrote his next script, an unassuming story about one Indian man’s journey back to his roots in the village. The whole film industry wanted to work with him. But Gowariker (who was a ubiquitous actor on television and in films–remember him as the spirited cabbie driving through curfew-stricken Mumbai in Mahesh Bhatt’s Naam–was very clear in his mind about what he wanted to do, and with whom.

I remember Kareena Kapoor had approached Gowraiker to be a part of his post-Lagaan film. He had very clearly explained his strategy for Swades. “Going by the script’s requirements I can only have one star in the film, the male or female lead. Since I’ve already decided on Shah Rukh for the male lead I’ll have to opt for a newcomer for the female lead.”

For the female lead Gowariker chose a simple non-glamorous middleclass Maharashtrian, Gayatri Joshi. For the film’s central role it was Shah Rukh, the Khan who had turned down Lagaan. But then, so had Abhishek Bachchan.

Ideally this filmmaker would have gone for a fresh male face in Swades. I believe he wanted to cast Madhavan in the lead. Unfortunately in Bollywood you can’t dream big dreams without big stars. And though both the super-director and the superstar deny it, there are stories about the heated discussions and creative disputes on the sets.

There’s a story about how Shah Rukh stormed out of the sets after one of Gowariker’s assistants reminded the star his job is only to act.

I’ve a feeling these stories are true. No true creative work is born without conflict. Aishwarya Rai and Sanjay Leela Bhansali fight fierce battles on the sets of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Shabana Azmi and Aparna Sen were at complete loggerheads during Sati. Deepa Mehta and Aamir Khan couldn’t see eye to eye regarding his character in 1947–Earth.

So yes….I’d like to believe Ashutosh and Shah Rukh disagreed to finally agree on creating a work of art. I believe Swades is a very special work, not because it’s anything like Lagaan but because it would be nothing like the earlier work.

One person who’s looking forward to Swades is Jaya Bachchan. “I really want to see the film. It looks so fresh and so ….pure! And after a long time we get such melodious songs. Ashutosh Gowariker has made Shah Rukh Khan act and look completely different.”

Will Swades be as big and grand as Lagaan at the boxoffice? No! But I know for sure that Swades will take its creator ahead of his earlier film.

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