Somewhere in a village in northern India, a train brings the troubled protagonist Mohan Bhargava chugging to a halt at a godforsaken station. A little boy runs along screaming, "Water for 25 paise."
Mohan, who has never touched anything but mineral water in India, buys the water...probably contaminated but still water that belongs to his soil, his country....
The life-defining moment in Ashutosh Gowariker's eagerly awaited follow-up to "Lagaan" is so sincerely sublime and so intricately poignant that it brings to mind some of the most tragic interludes on the vicissitudes of Indian poverty, as seen in Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" and Bimal Roy's "Do Bigha Zameen".
"Swades" is a unique experiment with grassroots realism. It is so politically correct in its propagandist message that initially you wonder if the government of India funded the director's dream.
But, no, this neo-classic, conceived and designed as the great Indian journey into the heart and soul of poverty, is funded entirely by Gowariker's idealism.
It's a work that's as simple, lucid and lyrical as a tune sung in repose by that minstrel who sings not because he must but because he knows no other thing.
There's an enchanting intimacy to "Swades" that invites you in without trying. The plot is so obvious that you wonder why an ambitious, commercial behemoth like Gowariker would want to make a film about a young, highly successful Indian expatriate's rediscovery of his roots!
Once the director sets off on this journey of self-discovery with his protagonist, he doesn't flinch from the sheer transparency of his familiar yet fascinating tale. Often in this long and finally deeply fulfilling voyage you wonder what could possibly have prompted the director to make a film that doesn't pull any punches, resorts to no gimmicks and chooses to stay supine at a time when cinema has become hysterically over the top.
As Mohan takes a homesick journey from his cushy job in NASA in the US to a village near Delhi to meet up with his foster-mother (Kishori Ballal), we often finds him in situations that could eminently qualify as clichés on patriotism.
But "Swades" avoids being a 3-hour-15-minute long flag of nationalism.
There're hardly any hysterical highs (not counting the grand moment when Mohan unleashes water-generated electricity) or looming lows in the storytelling.
The format adopted by Gowariker is akin to a TV soap. Life flows effortlessly and fluently along with the multitude of characters creating an elaborate drama conveying the opposite of the two other notable NRI-returned-home films "Pardes" and "Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge" with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead.
If the other two films were giddy, glamorous celebrations of patriotism, "Swades" is far more austere and comprehensive in its view of India's acute need to recognise its weaknesses and strengths and act accordingly...and urgently.
Parts of the film are patently polemical. Gowariker stops the narration to let Mohan lecture the characters on why we as a country haven't been able to provide food and education at the grassroots level. The passionate dialogues by K.P. Saxena ring true even when their righteousness threatens to pitch the words from the pulpit.
Gowariker isn't scared of his idealism getting the better of his cinematic impulses. It doesn't adopt any of the technical methodologies that a multimillion epic must necessarily adopt in order to spin a marketable web of eyeball-arresting images.
"Swades" is, in fact, rather casually shot in parts. The s