Addressing itself to rudimentary grassroot problems such as rural poverty and illiteracy Swades is the most socially relevant commercial Hindi film to have emerged in the last decade. Ashutosh Gowariker discusses the film.
Swades hasnít opened that well.
The film hasnít yet got the audience it is meant to. The fact that itís a little different and even the promotional clippings suggested nothing else, couldíve something to do with this. Yes, the film is a little bit slow paced. Thatís because the dramatic thrust has a lot of gravity in it. Such films do need more time to develop. We need the audience to accept the languorous pace. In todayís times films are paced like the Frontier Mail. I want audiences to watch Swades more compassionately than the usual and go beyond the pace.
Swades is being seen as a propagandist cinema.
Propaganda is generally associated with political parties. I wouldnít like to see the ideas in Swades as propagandist. But it definitely projects nationalism. It begins as a story of an individiualís growing consciousness and then gets more societal.
Problems like drinking water and enough food below the poverty line are alien to metropolitian audiences. Is that why you brought in Shah Rukh Khan?
I never thought of him as a ploy to get in audiences. In fact I never got into a particular audience profile, tailoring my script accordingly. I wanted the audience to share my social consciousness. Even Iíve thought in the past, ĎIss desh ka kuch nahin ho sakta.í We need to break away from such cynicism. Thoughts on the decline in moral and living standards in our country were with me even before I wrote Lagaan.
In fact I started writing Swades at the same time. To get into something as realistic as Swades I needed to do extensive research. And I didnít want a research panel to do it for me. I preferred to do my own research. I discovered things about our country that I wasnít aware of earlier.
So like your protagonist Mohan Bhargava you too went through a process of selfdiscovery?
Yes. And the poverty that I discovered isnít restricted to rural India. Even at the traffic signal in the city when a child comes with outstretched hands itís an image that affects your conscience if you allow it to. We should stop believing that a change in the social order is someone elseís problem.
The film gets progressively polemical in tone?
The era of looking back in anger at social problems is over. We need to look back emotionally. Thatís the need of the hour. Thatís what Swades does. Thereís mass scale migration from the villages to cities and from cities to abroad. We say thatís because thereíre no job opportunities. But these opportunities need to be created.
I am perturbed to find every other security guard in Mumbaiís highrise buildings is either from Bihar or UP. When I ask them if theyíre farmers they admit they are, but had to leave home because of lack of opportunities. I think our strength is on our villages. In Swades I wanted all of us to re-visit old-world values. So noÖIím not preaching. Iím reminding you of what weíve lost. I want the audiencesí conscience to be pricked.
Swades harks back to Bimal Royís Do Bigha Zameen.
Iím deeply moved by the cinema of the 1950s, be it Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy or V. Shantaram. They made films about the grassroots when our society was optimistic. Today thereís complete despair. But we need to regain our positive outlook. It might take us another fifty years to regain our optimism. But letís start somewhere.
Every time I leave the theatre after a movie thereíre questions in my mind. I donít want questions any longer. Letís have some solutions. Each one of us is an expert on the problems faced by our country. But where are the solutions? To me the countryís main issue should be education. And it should be pushed as hard as possible.
Why Shah Rukh?
I needed someone who isnít cynical and yet when he thinks the West is where the action isÖ.contrasting qualities rolled into one. I needed an actor with an unpredictable quality about him. Shah Rukh has it. That Shah Rukh Khan could ride a train, bus or boat as he does in Swades is unheard of. People said, how could I make him do all this. But Shah Rukh is basically from the grassroots. Thanks to his screen image, he could look an outsider in the situations given in my film. I needed that look.
Shah Rukh could be the outsider looking into social issues with a sense of dismay and wonderment. And I had hoped his angst would affect the audience. All this wasnít done to be smart or clever. Shah Rukh and I bonded so well we never realized when the film started. We had done three films together as actors. In Swades we had a ball together. Neither of us was trying to impress the other. I had a script reading with him before shooting. He had never done that before in a movie. But because of the preparation no actor looks in awe of Shah Rukh in screen.
Both Lagaan and Swades were about rural exploitation.
After Lagaan I couldíve easily made a happy fantasy film like Goopi Gayen Bagan Bayen. But social issues started worrying me. So I thought, why not use my clout as the director of Lagaan to make a film that would otherwise find it hard to find an audience.
Swades is a much tougher film than Lagaan. I couldnít make it with Aamir Khan. He became too big after Lagaan. We had a heart-to-heart. Iím indebted to pull me out of the rut. It wouldíve been perfectly natural to cast him in my next. But I couldnít tailor my script for him. Shah Rukh is unpredictable. `Woh kuch bhi kar deta hai`. Aamir is a hundred percent Rama. He understood what I was saying.
Did you make a concerted effort to cast untried faces?
Absolutely. It was about the protagonist coming into a new world. So everyone had to be new. I met the leading lady, Gayatri Joshi, at a party. I needed an intelligent city girl.
Will Swades make as much difference as Lagaan?
Before making a difference it will have to find acceptance. I havenít done anything for effect in Swades. Lagaan was a formula film. Swades flies at one altitude. Thatís tough to do. I hope Swades will get an audience in rural areas. Iíve kept the narrative deliberately simplistic. I see Swades as a more than film.
For me entertainment ends in the theatre. Then thereís the carry-home. I want that aspect to be strong. Swades cost more than 20 crore rupees. I couldíve made it in six crores. But then the mountains and the boat ride would have been shot in Film City in Mumbai. NASA wouldíve been an office in Nariman Point in Mumbai. Letís see how it goes. I havenít made a flag-waving film. I havenít made it for money. But the distributors should get back their money.
Iíve got two script ready. Iím going to announce it within the next three days. It wonít be rural film. And yes it will have established stars.