The problem with Swades is that it represents good intentions gone off track.
I saw the movie right after I went to India, and by the time the end approached, I was squirming in my seat, waiting to get out. Of course, the experience would have been exacerbated, had the Khan been himself, which he thankfully was not, and one of the saving graces of the movie was his genuine attempt at being the character Mohan Bhargava, the NASA scientist who returns to India in search of his roots.
Mohan Bhargava comes to India, initially with a view to take back his childhood nanny to America. He finds her in a small village, and while spending time there, realises the appalling complacency and self-satisfaction that everyone has resigned themselves to. Deeply affected by this and the poverty that he witnesses, Bhargava builds a small hydroelectric station to provide electricity in times of power shortage, (something that the citizens of Atlanta should definitely think about...), falls in love with a girl who has devoted her life to the education of village children, and finally decides to come back to his roots, exemplified in the end with a wrestling match with the local postmaster. The problem with all of this is that it is highly predictable, even if acceptable, and denotes exactly the kind of story that any sensible film director making a film about brain-drain would think of bringing to screen. It says nothing that we don't already know. Apart from a slightly stimulating discourse that Bhargava gives to the village people, the film has no other words of wisdom.
In my opinion, Swades could have been made into a way much better movie, had the director and the lead character gone to the simple lengths of asking Indians who live in the US but who are proud to be Indians, what they feel and what they miss about their country. Gowariker should have done more research for the film, and echoed the true sentiments of sensible Indians living abroad. That perspective could have come even if he had interviewed students like us who have been there for even a year or two. As far as I know, he did no such thing. And therein lies the problem with the film. It's all too easy to imagine the kind of Indian values and roots that people like us would miss. And it is also easy to inculcate those emotions into cliche dialogues and portrayals on film.
I think that what is challenging and not so apparent, is the subtlety of emotions and angst that people like us feel, when we are away from home. My first trip home was a minor revelation. I learnt that the reason that I miss home when I am here is not simply an effect of obvious homesickness. It is a result of missing those small things, those punctillios and small and sundry details of our Indian life, that uniquely contribute to us being that hard to define, but distinct character called an 'Indian'. I think, and I realised this after being away for some time, that what makes our country unique is that inseparable blend of culture, religion, and human relations. The catch word here is inseparable. For an Indian, every activity that he has indulged since childhood, especially relating to family, is linked to the greater picture of being an Indian. Every true Indian is affected by this mix, irrespective of whether he is a theist or not. I have met people from many nationalities here, and at the risk of sounding like an overzealous patriot which I am certainly not, I can say that Indian culture offers a unique ethos of values and empathy, which if rightly used, has every potential to mould a wise and compassionate personality and make our nation truly great. Our real problem is that we seldom convert those traits into action. We become smug with these values, and have a conviction in them only in theory, never demonstrated in action. Anyway, I am getting ahead of the topic, and this actually warrants a detailed post which I am planning to post soon.
The point is that Gowariker has made a film which unfortunately has many cliche and all too obvious dialogues in it. Like I said before, it is easy to make a film about brain drain, that would tout the advantages of Indian 'sanskaar', human concerns and relations, and the exalted happenings of ancient Indian history. Such an approach quickly becomes cliche. It is another thing to actually live abroad, and realise the complex and subtle interactions that these things have, and the hard to deconvolute, but deeply ingrained effects that they have on our psyche. Indian inculturation is a unique and complicated affair, exemplified by its effect on human relations in our country. We ourselves have to still come to terms with it, even if we know its advantages, and this is easily seen in the form of divisive elements that constantly weaken the structure of our society, inspite of these immovable pillars of indoctrination. If that's the case even with 'true' Indians, it would take a film director much much more than what Gowariker has done to portray the real meaning of being Indian.
I am still waiting for the real Swades...