A Homeland Imagined and Consumed

Richard Delacy

In Review | Film Swades: We, the People. UTV Motion Pictures/Ashutosh Gowariker Productions, 197 minutes.

The film Swades (Homeland) rendered into English as "We, the People," was written, produced, and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who was responsible for the earlier and arguably more successful Lagaan in 2001—if an Oscar nomination indexes success. Swades starred the most influential actor of the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, Shah Rukh Khan, in the role of Mohan Bhargava, a NASA project manager and nonresident Indian (NRI) who decides on the death anniversary of his parents to return to India in search of his elderly nanny. The film ostensibly is about Mohan's journey back to India, and his ultimate decision to forsake his career and comforts in the United States to return to the swades for good.

The first thing to note about the film is that it was not a "hit." While this reveals no more than the fact that it did not realize a healthy economic return, it would seem to suggest that the film was not popular among South Asians in India. For a commodity (the significance of which is predicated on its potential for consumption), absence of financial success immediately compels us to question its value as a social or historical document. Surely, if the film did not "resonate" with the population in India, this must mean that it has little to tell us about the nation, subjectivity, and so on, in South Asia. However, Jurassic Park succeeded in India (as well as in the United States, but no one here questions its relationship to the average citizen's sense of cultural identity), which does not necessarily immediately make it a worthy subject for studies of commercial cinema in South Asia. Indeed, the failure of a film commercially may also have little to do with how many people actually consumed it.

However, as it stands, most who study commercial cinema in India justify their focus on particular films on the basis that they were "hits" at the box office, which in reality says very little about what it means to consume a film. The fact that a film, made intentionally for a broad "Indian" audience, does not succeed makes that film perhaps more interesting than a film that does. This is particularly so with a film like this, which touts itself as being about the very people who are presumably also its primary consumers. It also happens to contain the most bankable star of the last 15 years. Finally, a quick search of Wikipedia informs us that the film was critically acclaimed and the recipient of numerous awards from various organizations.

Swades is a film supposedly about the rediscovery of India by the nonresident Indian. It can be said to fall into that genre of films, produced since the early 1990s, in which Indians living abroad have been featured. It is often argued that the primary reason for this focus is because of the growing economic importance of the "NRI market" for those who produce films in Mumbai. It has also been argued that filmmakers are increasingly turning away from the traditional primary audiences in north India as a source of revenue. This would seem to be an oversimplification, particularly with the transformation of the consumer cinematic experience in north Indian towns and the growing construction of multiplex cinemas in the newer context of burgeoning shopping malls. Nevertheless, it seems a point worth pondering, and an effort to target a more lucrative market would certainly seem an entirely reasonable move on the part of film companies.

The point that is salient for my discussion is that such films are accessible to much wider audiences and, for this reason, are more susceptible to analysis in a broader discursive realm than older culture-commodities produced entirely in languages other than English. In other words, in addition to the significant increase in the use of English in the film (one wonders what to make of the opening scenes that are almost entirely in English), it is also the case that modern technology has meant that even those without training in the so-called vernacular can access this text in an unmediated manner. But how should we understand a film produced in Mumbai, seemingly targeted at an audience situated in the United States, and which would, on the surface at least, appear to be all about the consumption of culture, and an authentic idyllic, village culture at that?

How should we understand a film produced in Mumbai, targeted at an audience in the U.S., which appears to be about an idyllic, village culture?

The narrative of Swades is, at its core, extremely simple. As I mentioned, it is the story of Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), who returns to India after many years to search for his former nanny, Kaveri Amma. In a clearly diegetic move in the opening scenes, the viewer is informed that Kaveri Amma—who was jointly responsible, with Mohan's mother, for his upbringing during the first 17 years of his life—was like a second mother to this only child. Mohan has lived in the United States from the time he attended college, returning to India only in his final year, following the sudden death of his parents in a car accident. This was the point at which he had his final contact with Kaveri Amma as well, and the film opens with him explaining to Vinod, his close friend and colleague at NASA, that his subdued behavior, on a day when he should be celebrating the successful completion of an important stage of the project he manages, is due to the fact that it also happens to be the death anniversary of his parents. It is then revealed that Mohan feels great remorse over having lost contact with his nanny after returning to the United States, and that in order to make up for this, he is considering returning to India and bringing Kaveri Amma back with him.

It is possible to place Swades comfortably in the category of films that target the nonresident-Indian audience—and especially that part of the audience which resides in the United States.1 While it is of course debatable as to what actually constitutes an "NRI film"—that is, a film targeted directly at first- or second-generation South Asians settled in the former metropolitan centers—it is understood that the U.S. and U.K. markets for Bollywood films have been considered lucrative territory in their own right for several years now. For this reason, it is entirely feasible that filmmakers have selfconsciously constructed narratives in order to appeal to an "imagined" NRI audience.

On the surface, then, this is the story of the journey back to the homeland, but not just the homeland one left in the pursuit of material advantage. Rather, the protagonist of this film is compelled to return to village India, on the understanding that his sojourn simply a brief one to retrieve his former nanny. It is evident from the narrative that our protagonist lived a privileged urban life before emigrating to the United States, and was unacquainted with the rural world to which he now travels.2 Thus, in this narrative, the village is immediately placed in the foreground as the repository of an authentic and valorized life, more so than the city, which remains almost completely absent from the film. This is in accord with a long tradition in commercial Hindi cinema of privileging the village over the city as the domain of tradition and culture. While the village is not without its problems (to which I will return), it nevertheless functions, in contrast to metropolitan areas, as the "real" India, reminiscent of Jawaharlal Nehru's "discovery" of India more than half a century earlier. Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India that it was while traveling in the villages that he discovered the "real" India, contained in the people themselves. "The mountains and the rivers of India, and the forests and the broad fields, which gave us food, were dear to us, but what counted ultimately were the people of India, people like them and me, who were spread out all over this vast land."3

Thus, our protagonist travels to a village that he never knew and a world he had little intention of experiencing. During his stay, as he attempts to convince Kaveri Amma to join him in the United States, he is compelled to confront a world that is plagued with seemingly insurmountable problems of underdevelopment and poverty, as well as by age-old issues of caste and gender discrimination, illiteracy, and child marriage. Unable to tolerate the oppressiveness of the status quo, and the apparent apathy and unwillingness of the villagers to change, Mohan decides to get involved in order to improve the quality of life of the villagers. The film culminates with him designing and constructing a small hydroelectric power plant to provide continuous electricity and make the village self-sufficient. Although he returns to the United States, and to the project at NASA, Mohan has come to the realization that he belongs in India and that he should settle in the village of Charanpur.

It is possible to read this film as an exhortation to the nonresident Indian to return to swades, both because it is the veritable repository of his or her culture and because it is an act of patriotism to contribute to the development of the homeland. This was my initial interpretation when I first saw the film. How, then, does it transform our understanding of the film to consider that it was "inspired" by the return of an actual couple, Dr. Ravi Kuchmandi and his wife Aravinda Pillamarri, several years earlier? How does our understanding change, to realize that the film may be not so much an appeal to the nonresident Indian to abandon the material prosperity of "the West" in order to contribute to his country of origin as the telling of the actual story of just such a couple? How should we interpret the significant changes from the actual lives of the two people who inspired Gowariker to create the film?

To begin with, the fictional Mohan Bhargava returns to India with no intention of contributing to its development, but simply to take his elderly ayah back to the United States with him. A seemingly benevolent act could thus also be interpreted as an attempt to acquire some of the spiritual essence of swades, and to transplant this spiritual swades to the material West. The fact that it is a mother figure that Mohan seeks to bring back with him from India is not lost on the observer, given the long-established tradition of understanding swades as female (Bharat Mata), as well as the notion prevalent since at least the colonial period that women are the very embodiment of culture and tradition in South Asia. Indeed, the suspicion is even raised at one point in the film that Mohan's motive for wanting to bring Kaveri Amma to the United States is so that she can become his housekeeper. Of course, the original (and misguided, as it turns out) motive that brings our fictional protagonist back to swades represents a significant departure from the actual details of the lives of the couple whose story is said to have inspired the film.

It is clear that the figure of Kaveri Amma functions in the narrative in a critical manner. In the absence of parents and siblings, Kaveri Amma represents the only family that Mohan has. In a manner, Mohan's remorse and desire to care for the now-aged ayah may be understood as the displaced desire to care for aged parents, something that is privileged in discourses on the family in South Asia. Gowariker even offers a critique of a modern social order that has begun to abandon its elderly to retirement homes in a manner that goes against Indian tradition. Kaveri Amma's familial status is further underscored by the fact that Mohan chastises his friend and colleague Vinod, when he refers to Kaveri Amma as tumhaare bacpan ki daaii (your childhood nanny). Eliding the very real economic relationship of wage labor that is at the heart of their relationship, Mohan insists that Kaveri Amma was equal to his mother. This displaced desire and longing also acts to sublimate the desire to consume culture in the form of a bride, a trope that has previously been employed in Hindi cinema, perhaps because there is an understanding that it mirrors a similar desire among nonresident Indians. The displacement of this desire would seem a strategy on the part of the filmmaker to avoid this obvious implication. To have reduced the narrative to the search for conjugal love in the manner of films such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge or Pardes would perhaps have risked weakening any didactic force that Gowariker may have sought for the film.

However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the dichotomy that Gowariker sets up between swades and its opposite, pardes (foreign land). Here he attempts to reinforce the age-old tension between East and West, the spiritual and the material, and culture and capital, as well as invoke the now traditional cinematic nostalgia for the village as the ideal community. Ashis Nandy has written of how Hindi cinema invokes the village as the repository of the ideal community in opposition to the city, which is seen as the site of the corrupting modern.4 Gowariker's village is very much the village of Gandhi. It is no surprise that another inspiration for the film was a little-known book on rural development and the stories of 12 people who turned their backs on lucrative careers in urban India to work in the rural countryside and devote themselves to the Gandhian ideal of the autonomous village community.5 In the film we can see that Gowariker's swades, village India, is also the site of considerable tension. It is swades, the people (that is, ordinary Indians living in the villages), that represents the "real India." Mohan's journey back to swades must take him to the village rather than to the city, in spite of the fact that the village is a domain that even in his 17 years growing up in India, Mohan perhaps never experienced. This in itself is problematic. What is even more problematic, however, is the very real circumstances in which urbanization in South Asia is taking place at what some would suggest is an alarming rate.6

It is caste discrimination which is to be understood as the divisive force holding back the people from achieving their true potential as a united community.

Thus, the village may represent the real India, but it cannot be divorced economically from the city, and it is increasingly the case that urban Indians have less and less of a relationship with rural India. While it may be idyllic, the village, as represented cinematically, is far from ideal. But the problems that plague the swades that Gowariker highlights in the film would seem to be perennial problems that date back at least to the colonial period: caste and gender discrimination, illiteracy, child marriage, and crushing poverty. In particular, it is caste discrimination which is to be understood in this narrative as the divisive force that is holding back the people from achieving their true potential as a united community. The current economic relationship between the country and the city is almost completely elided in this cinematic representation of rural South Asia. What is missing, in particular is the following: the economic exploitation of rural areas by urban areas, which has made it increasingly difficult for farmers to eke out a living; and the transformation of the agricultural domain, with the shift from subsistence farming to the production of cash crops as well as the development of large-scale agro-farming, which has made it almost impossible for smaller farmers to survive and has driven countless thousands to the cities in search of employment. In addition, the demise of traditional industries, such as pottery and weaving (the farmer from whom Mohan is sent to collect overdue rent is a weaver who was forced to abandon his profession and turn to farming), cannot be divorced from the impact of urban, large-scale industries. Finally, pollution from industries has had a profound impact on the river systems in India and caused further damage to the natural environment and resulted in the loss of the livelihood of literally thousands of people.

In spite of the filmmaker's efforts to restrict the problems faced by the ideal swades to the problems that seemingly faced Gandhi's village community over half a century ago, certain tensions in this characterization of village life as economically removed from the urban world and as a repository of culture and tradition nevertheless emerge in the film. When Mohan debates Geeta (the school teacher and the film's heroine, with whom Mohan falls in love) over the problems India faces, he argues that the government is the cause of the failure to provide infrastructure, mostly on account of rampant corruption. When Geeta responds that the government is simply a system and is constituted by the people, she recognizes that the state obviously plays an influential role in the process of development and providing equally for all of its citizens, even though her point is that the primary responsibility should be taken by the citizens themselves. When Mohan attempts to convince those of the potter caste to educate their children, he uses the economic argument that they would not be exploited by urban clients if they were aware of the true value of their wares. Finally, at the celebration to welcome new students (many of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds or are Dalits) to the primary school, when Mohan argues with the members of the panchayat that it is precisely the age-old argument that India possesses a cultural and civilizational superiority to the West that is holding back the country, he effectively undermines the idea that the village is the repository of a spiritual/cultural dimension or difference. Moreover, by responding that America, too, has its own particular culture and values, he collapses the distinction that for close to 200 years set South Asia apart from the materialist West in nationalist thinking.

While Mohan is compelled to learn about the village, its politics and social relations, and its community values, his resolute determination to get involved and make a difference, particularly through the construction of a hydroelectric scheme, endears him to the villagers and helps them to see the "error" of their ways in excluding certain minorities and girls from education and practicing age-old discrimination on the basis of caste. Though he returns to the United States, he very soon realizes that his future is in rural India, and specifically in the village of Charanpur; for it is in the now-enlightened (literally and figuratively) village that a certain spiritual essence exists in opposition to a world that is supposedly given over to rampant materialism, conspicuous consumption, and high-end individualism.

Thus, the film underlines the notion that this certain intangible essence contained in swades cannot be "consumed" in the manner of commodity culture in the West. With both Kaveri Amma's and Geeta's refusals to return with Mohan to the United States, the idea that Indian culture itself can be consumed, or that India can be transplanted to foreign soil, is also rejected. Yet this problematizes the idea that a commodity, such as a film, can itself actually become a vehicle for the consumption of culture or, in other words, the "nation." According to the "message" of Swades, one cannot experience that certain intangible spiritual essence of the homeland other than through physically returning to it. However, it seems to me that in order to succeed, the film must deny its own status as a culture-commodity to be consumed for the realization of economic capital. It is no surprise that the film must scrupulously avoid the world of modern, urban India, as well as suppress the actual exploitative nature of the relationship between the country and the city in South Asia.

How then should we understand Swades as a culture-commodity that seemingly tells the tale of two real-life nonresident Indians who decided to return to India and use their training and skills to improve the lives of ordinary citizens in rural India? In producing a culture-commodity for consumption, as entertainment, in both domestic and international markets, how has the social and historical content been tapped and refashioned? How should we understand the place of a commodity, like a particular film, among so many commodities that saturate the market for the exchange of culture-commodities in the current age? How should we experience a film that would, on the surface at least, appear to present us with a positive message about transforming the social order and producing a form of sustainable development for rural South Asia?

One way of understanding this film and its rendering of actual social and historical content is to suggest that it participates in a complex process that is part repression and part management of desire. Fredric Jameson has written of these twin drives in his Signatures of the Visible, and it seems to me that this formulation could be useful here in relation to understanding this film.7 Invoking Freud's notion of repression, Jameson writes that this mechanism "comes into play only after its object—trauma, charged memory, guilty or threatening desire, anxiety—has in some way been aroused, and risks emerging into the subject's consciousness." But he also writes that the classic Freudian model of the work of art "was that of the symbolic fulfillment of the repressed wish, of a complex structure of indirection whereby desire could elude the repressive censor and achieve some measure of a, to be sure, purely symbolic satisfaction." Thus, on the one hand, repression functions to protect the psyche from dangerous desires, and anxieties, while works of art (even those that are said to be for mass consumption) serve a wish-fulfilling function. The vocation of the work of art, according to Jameson (invoking Norman Holland's Dynamic of Literary Response) "is to manage this raw material of the drives and the archaic wish or fantasy material."8

Thus, we can understand the various forms of displacement and repression we find in Swades, as the transformation of certain "social and political anxieties and fantasies" on the part of the filmmaker, particularly over the very real exploitative relationship between the rural and the urban domains in contemporary South Asia. It could even be said that the most significant displacement in Swades, on the pretext of telling the story of two real-life nonresident Indians who made the decision to return to India and work for rural development, is that by which the critique of South Asian culture and civilization comes to be articulated by the nonresident Indian, an idea that has held currency in South Asia since the early colonial period.9

Notes

  1. These films go back at least as far as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaenge (The Brave Heart Gets the Girl, 1995) and may be said to include the following: Pardes (Foreign Land, 1997), Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens, 1998), Aa, Ab Laut Chele (Come, Let's Go Home, 1999), Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gam (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness, 2001), Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow Come What May, 2003), Salam-Namaste (2005), Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Never Say Farewell, 2006).
  2. We learn this by being told that he was raised in Delhi and from his reluctance to travel to village India without a suitably equipped mobile home.
  3. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Oxford University Press, 1982), 60.
  4. The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy (Oxford University Press, 1998), 1-19.
  5. Rajni Bakshi, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi (Penguin Books, 1998), 8.
  6. The idea of "urbanization" in India is complicated somewhat by the fact that the population has also increased by almost 200 percent since independence. This means that there has been a greater burden on resources nationwide, and that populations across both urban and rural India must have changed significantly. A rough estimate of urbanization in India, however, would suggest that the village-city ratio, in percentages, at independence was 85:15 percent. Now it is closer to 60:40 percent. This has resulted in a drastically transformed agricultural sphere.
  7. Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, in Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1992), 11-46.
  8. Ibid., 32-33.
  9. On the evolution in the nineteenth century of this idea of a certain spiritual/cultural domain that was different from that of the colonizer, and that had to be protected at all costs, see Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Richard Delacy is a preceptor in Urdu-Hindi in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. His dissertation is on culture-commodities in South Asia in the post-liberalization period.

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