Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 01/16/05 4:15 PM

Feature: We Who Watched Swades

We the viewers

I WATCHED Ashutosh Gowariker’s ode to social service, “Swades” with a sinking heart.

Oh, I liked the film, flawed though it was. In what is getting to be a Gowariker trait, it was a simple story told at its own pace. The humour was so gentle that it appeared positively fragile at times. The angst suffered by the protagonists (and yes, the heroine was as much a protagonist as the hero) was throughout suffused and, therefore, diluted with pragmatism.

If the screenplay dragged at times, well, a steady diet of Malayalam art house cinema has taught me that a good story just cannot be hurried along. The music, surprisingly for Rahman, left much to be desired but that was okay.

The point was, after what seemed a never-ending diet of karva chauth epics, films that told improbable stories interspersed with music that seemed more Punjabi than Hindi, pureed applesauce in fact, “Swades” was a film that asked people to observe, understand, empathise, to feel. Which, in today’s times, is asking a bit too much.

Strange age

And that was why I watched the film with a sinking heart. Because I knew instinctively that “Swades” was going to tank at the box office. Where films like “Murder”, “Hulchul” (definitely not one of director Priyadarshan’s better efforts) and “Aetraaz” did relatively well, the tale of a returned NRI working to better living conditions in an obscure village in the hinterlands wasn’t going to push too many buttons.

This is a strange age we live in. An age where people prefer to be fed ideas in the form of brief gossipy capsules; where Page Three has slowly and steadily eclipsed the editorials; where the quickest introduction to the beautiful melodies of yore comes from their remixed version.

The bold and the beautiful have become the brash and the bizarre and despite sinking TRPs, the saas-bahu serials get more attention than does a good book. But naturally, this affects the cinema we prefer to watch, too.

Just as we are fashioned by our character traits, by our communities, by our upbringing, we are pretty much what we believe in, too. And so, we are how we react to a film like “Swades”.

Today, it would seem we like to coast through life in the easiest lane, “chilling” so much that certain issues that ought to light a fire under us, leave us cold. The concept of hard work is not alien; it’s just that hard work is now the means to a definitive, lucrative end. Concepts, as a matter of fact, have turned into sound bytes. The quick fix is the best fix there is; struggle of any sort is anathema. We’ve taken the adage that the consumer is king, so much to heart that we are reluctant to relinquish that sceptre. Bisleri is the way of life; water in a kullad is the strange one.

Standards of decency

And in this cycle of consuming, producing, partying, and plain and simple living well (which, when you think about it, is anything but plain and simple), we’ve pretty much thrown overboard something that used to be at the core of us all: the belief that we are all inherently decent human beings (not studs, dudes, babes and bombs) capable of doing something meaningful, capable of making a difference to lives other than our own. We’ve been chasing standards of living so hard that we’ve chased the standard of decency off the road.

Of course, the karva chauth films do splendidly well. All the viewer is asked to do is to sit back, acquire a big tub of buttered popcorn and watch three relentless hours of People Unlike Us making of their lives one big party. If problems crop up in the lives of these candy floss characters, and yes they do, (they are people too, though unlike us) well, these problems are overcome on waves of emotion using a theory that completely relegates intellect to the background or the dustbin, whichever is more handy.

European cinema frequently raises the dumbing-down complaint against standard Hollywood fare. However, Hollywood does, once in a while, produce decidedly unpretty films like “Mystic River”, “Iris” and “Monster”.

Films that throw up controversial topics, make the viewer sit up, think, and go home from the theatre still thinking. The karva chauth line-up makes the viewer think too, but on a different track: will SRK’s hair colour suit me, should Kareena have appeared in that shot sans conditioner and should I trade my Lexus for a Bentley like the one Amitabh rode in.

Way we see films

I am not condemning the work of people like Yash and Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar or Farah Khan. It is not my contention that information must needs run on a parallel track to entertainment. Tamil cinema has, for years now, proved that theory wrong, seamlessly melding thought-provoking ideas with impeccable artistry to make for crackling good mainstream cinema. Bollywood, though, has yet to crack that formula, though Gowariker’s debut effort “Lagaan” was one exception.

It’s not the films we see, it’s the way we see films. And so, of course the story of Mohan Bhargava will bore us. “Highly improbable story, yaar,” one youth tells his mates as they leave the cinema hall, and I stifle a wry smile. Improbable is what I had termed the karva chauth genre.

I’m tempted to stop the young man and tell him about the likes of Ramesh Ramanathan who quit a good job in the U.S. to come home to Bangalore and work for that city’s betterment. Or the two young men who did likewise and helped set up electricity in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh. I’m tempted but I won’t tell them. Because what I have to say will bore them, too.

Doing what Mohan Bhargava did may not come easily to many. However, watching his story being told on celluloid, and appreciating it for the nobility of purpose at its core, that oughtn’t to be too hard. Oughtn’t to be, but alas, it is.

Indeed, we are how we react to what we see. Whether that is a tsunami-affected coastline almost at our doorstep. Or the story of Mohan Bhargava.

This ran in THE HINDU of 16 Jan 2005.



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Sheila Kumar • January 16, 2005

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