‘Swades’ and New Age Nationalism
By Chandni Sengupta
The Hindi film industry can be given credit for contributing significantly to the nationalist discourse. In the 1950s and 60s, films like Anand Math (1952), Son of India (1962), Haqeeqat (1964), Shaheed (1965), Upkar (1967), to name a few, captivated the audience with their overtly nationalist stance. High voltage drama, intense war scenes, and veracious accounts of loss of human lives were some of the hallmarks of these films. In the 1970s, films like Purab aur Paschim (1970) made a slight shift from overt nationalism to a discourse on cultural supremacy of the East over the West. The 1980s and 90s, particularly the 90s, also had much to offer on the silver screen as far as patriotism is concerned. Border (1997), the war drama depicting the Indo-Pak War of 1971, received a rousing welcome. The film was as much a statement on nationalism as it was on the futility of war. The gruesome killings of soldiers on both sides of the border, the anguish of their families, and the dichotomous nature of a soldier’s duty were mellifluously showcased in the lyrics of the song, ‘Mere Dushman Mere Bhai’ (My enemy, my brother).
In the 2000s when issues of development, economic aggrandizement, and socio-political reforms took centrestage, the impact was seen in the ways in which a new and resurgent India was being sketched on celluloid. The nationalist discourse in Hindi cinema also changed its course to widen the definition of nationalism to include development as the mainstay of national regeneration. In this, the film Swades can be taken as a case study to explain how a film portrayed the changing dimensions of the nationalist discourse in the new millennium.
Swades influenced the audiences with a subtle yet powerful nationalist message. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film released in 2004, and though it was not a success at the box office, it did leave an impression on the minds and hearts of informed audiences across India and among Indians living overseas. The film was an excellent example of how new age nationalism could go beyond tanks and guns. It typified contemporary issues which had gained ground in the 2000s. The film did not force nationalism down our throat; it did not make India seem like a divine entity. It focused on real issues, it focused on issues that needed to be addressed while applauding things that had already been achieved. Swades was different from all the other patriotic films in that it focused more on self-realization of the sentiment of nationalism and less on what it should be like.
Mohan Bhargava, the main protagonist played effortlessly by Shahrukh Khan, was the exemplar of a resurgent India. He was the quintessential young Indian man whose aspirations were tied to the great American dream. Serving NASA as a project manager would be any young scientist’s dream and Mohan Bhargava had it under his belt. With his busy life in the US, Mohan could have forgotten his roots completely but that was not to be. What kept him attached to his homeland was the memory of his nanny, Kaveri Amma, who was his only family back home. Swades, therefore, makes a strong statement about recognizing ones roots, national, familial, and everything that is intrinsic to an individual’s identity. Mohan worked at NASA but his heart yearned for meeting his old nanny back home. The long journey he takes to find his nanny, and how it transforms him as a person is a narrative which is beautifully woven around his sojourns on the caravan trail with the song, ‘Yun hi chala chal rahi’ (Walk the beaten path, O Traveller).
The film does not shy away from highlighting the weaknesses of India. The regressive caste system which has proved to be a bane, social conditions in the villages, shortcomings of the developmental goals, apart from other issues which need serious thought and action, are reinforced effectively by the director. The abysmal condition of a small village, named Kodi, which Mohan visits, awakens him to a reality that is both shocking and deeply moving. Mohan’s desire to stay back in Kaveri Amma’s village and work for its betterment is no less nationalist than the desire of a soldier to fight for his motherland. Mohan’s love for his nation may not be written across his face but it is unquestionable. If it wasn’t, he would not have extended his leave from NASA for three weeks and stayed on in a village unknown to him. Mohan finally decides to leave for the US to complete a project but his journey to the US was not to last long as he decides to return to India and live and work for his country forever.
Swades represents a nationalism that needs no enemies, no wars; there is no violence to prove one’s superiority over the other. It is a film, which gives nationalism a new meaning. It makes nationalism a self-driven force in which each individual is supposed to feel responsible towards one’s nation. It could be any place of origin and because Mohan is an Indian, in this case it is India. It does not leave an overbearing imprint of nationalism but presents a very muted yet hard-hitting idea of love for one’s nation. Devoid of rhetoric and drama, the film appropriately addresses the idea of national duty and ‘giving back to the nation.’ Mohan was not a soldier, he was not a social worker, neither was he a politician, but he feels as strongly as each one of them and works arduously for the betterment of a village, which was not even his ancestral village. He rises above the distinctions of caste, class, region, and sets up a hydroelectric power generation facility in his Amma’s village. Nationalism, therefore, is brought out of the burdensome theoretical framework. Mohan lives his nationalism, he does not theorize, he does not speak about it. Unlike the vitriolic dialogues of Border, delivered eloquently by Sunny Deol, Swades is a film, which does not have to spew venom to drive its point across.
The true essence of nationalism is in serving the nation, and this service can be in any form. Swades went beyond the standard notions of nationalism, which rely heavily on heroism and rhetoric. It pitched for a new kind of nationalism.
Chandni Sengupta is Assistant Professor of History at the Amity School of Liberal Arts, Amity University Gurgaon, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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