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Posted by martinteller on February 9, 2012

About ten years ago, I watched my first Bollywood film, the much-acclaimed (considered by many the best of them) Lagaan, a nearly 4-hour period epic about cricket.  I was captivated by its surprisingly engaging story, catchy tunes, elaborate costumes, likeable characters and wonderful dance routines.  As of this moment, it’s my highest-rated Indian film of the past 30 years.  Upon watching Ashutosh Gowariker’s follow-up film, I’m starting to wonder how much of that affection might have been borne out of the novelty of something so foreign to me at the time rather than its actual quality.

Swades concerns an up-and-coming NASA engineer who returns to India to locate his childhood nanny.  In the process he falls in love (of course), learns some valuable life lessons, and is pretty much a messiah to a small village (“Now that you’re here, I can die in peace” says the town elder!).  In what seems to be a Bollywood tradition of pandering to the lowest common denominator, the film’s lessons are too simplistic for anyone but a child.  The caste system is kinda mean and outdated?  You don’t say!  I’ve seen Disney movies with more thematic and moral complexity.  Every problem is rectified, every conflict resolved, usually within minutes.  It lacks dramatic tension, it’s storytelling at its most basic level.

It does have its charms, though.  Shah Rukh Khan seems in over his head, he resorts to an awful lot of thoughtful furrowing of his brow.  Gayatri Joshi fares slightly better, although she has less to do.  Together they make a reasonably believable and likeable couple.  Some of the supporting performances are more endearing… the mailman/wrestling instructor, the guy who wants to open a roadside Indian fast food joint in America, and the old nanny that Khan came to India for in the first place.  There are about 5 songs, all pretty good.  The one about the stars was the most pleasant (the one at the religious festival the most awkward, as Khan just seems to butt in uninvited).  I was also relieved to find a lack of broad, stupid comedy.  Not a fart joke in sight.

It must be comforting in a country so overpopulated to tell stories of long-lost acquaintances magically bumping into each other in unlikely places.  I’m thinking back to Awaara and 3 Idiots and I’m certain I’ve seen this device utilized in other Bollywood films.  Even Satyajit Ray is not innocent… Kapurush hinges on a similar coincidental meeting.  The initial meeting between Khan and Joshi stretches the limits of probability in a number of ways, but I guess you just roll your eyes and accept it.

I wanted to like this, and I was hoping to give it at least a “Fair” rating.  But in the end I was just too disappointed by the lack of narrative sophistication or nuance.  If it had a little more spark, a little more fun, I might have overlooked its flaws more.  Rating: Poor


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