Why Swades is the best Indian film on social issues

Swades: We, the People is a 2004 Hindi film written, produced and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. It stars Shah Rukh Khan as an NRI NASA Project Manager on a vacation to India to find his nanny (whom he knew as a kid) and take her to the US with him. On his quest, he met many interesting people and the woman he fall in love with. The film, largely based in an Indian village set-up has some remarkable music, cinematography and performances, almost usual in any Gowariker movie.

However, the script of the film is the one that stands out the most. It dealt with numerous social issues that are relevant in the modern Indian society without diluting the cinematic experience. Here are some of the thoughtful matters of national importance that are raised in the film:

  1. Education

Primary education is a hotly debated issue in India, even after 6 years of implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), more than 50% of the Std V students cannot read a Std II level text. The enrolment has stagnated at more than 96%, but it’s the learning outcomes that are of grave concern.

In the film, Geeta (Gayatri Joshi) wants to run a school where the enrollment is dwindling due to dropouts and social exclusion of backward castes children. It’s her plight that forms one of the major sub-plot.

2. Casteism

Caste system in India is still a burgeoning issue. The lower castes, especially in 60 million+ villages suffers from social exclusion. They are treated pathetically; denied of basic public services such as Education, Healthcare just because they took birth in a so-called “backward caste”.

The film portrays many such families like the untouchables who don’t feel included in the village social life and dwell outside the periphery of the hamlet.

Jo kabhi nai jaati, usi ko jati kehte hain”
The thing that never goes, that thing is called caste

3. Women Empowerment

In the male-dominated Indian society, there is widespread gender disparity. The female of the family are usually refused of basic education too. Some females, primarily from elite families who get to graduate are discouraged to work because of groom’s family obligations.

Geeta is the classic example — She wants to live with dignity, freedom and independently, but the boy-family don’t agree with her choices. She dump the marriage proposal for her ideology. Way to go!

4. Poverty and Inequality

Of the 1.2 billion Indian population, more than 400 million live in dire poverty, without even eating 2 times of meal a day.

The case of Haridas, the tenant farmer brings a lump to the throat. Beautifully exploited in the film yet a tearful real-tragedy of Indian farmers.

5. Modernity Vs Tradition

India, one of the world’s oldest civilisation has a place which is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city — Varanasi or Benares or Kashi. In a nation where 3 of the world’s major religions were founded and a ‘way of life’ dating back to bronze age; there are regular clashes of the tradition with the modern.

There are numerous reference to this particular issue. But, the one that is most amazing is the monologue of Mohan (SRK) where he decisively explains why out country is not the world’s best country.

Jab bhi hum muqable mein dabne lagte hai…to hum ek hi cheez ka aadhaar lete hain…Sanskar, Parampara
Whenever we are under pressure in a competition…then we always say one thing…Culture, Tradition

6. Local Governments Empowerment

Ask any educated Indian where s/he wants to settle — 90% of the case, s/he will say Mumbai or Delhi or Bengaluru. There’s huge migration from the rural places to urban cities, mostly because of the facilities being available at the latter. The rural-urban ratio now stands at 69:31 (2011 census) and the urban population is rising at unprecedented rate.

The Gram Sabha scene in the first half is a brilliant depiction of the rural India’s problems — Electricity and Education were discussed. There’s a fleeting reference to the role of Zilla Parishad too. After the 73rd Constitutional Amendment introducing the Panchayati Raj Institutions in 1992, there has been an increase in the funds, functions and functionaries to empower the local governments but it’s still in progress.

7. Child Labour

Any person following news knows about the ghastly child labour prevalent in our nation, thanks to the Nobel-Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, who fought against all to ensure a safe and happy childhood for millions of children.

There’s a scene in the movie where Mohan is served a cup of tea by a child (somewhere near age 10) at a local Railway Station. It’s a heart-wrenching shot where neither viewers nor Mohan could held up their tears.

8. Old-Age homes

Indians are renowned for disowning their ugly, old, helpless parents and drive them to old age homes. It has been a recurring feature in many Indian households and innumerable bollywood films, not to forget the saas-bahu soaps.

Mohan too, after reaching India, first visit an old-age home at New Delhi to look for Kaveri amma. But, as referenced early in the film, she is very fortunate to have 2 people coming to take her home.

9. Brain Drain

Finally, the major theme of the film: Educated, Successful Non-Resident Indian (NRI) returning back to his motherland to serve the nation our ancestors fought for.

Annually, thousands of Indians go abroad to never return, thanks to our wretched governance and low standard of living. People who graduate from institutes of national importance (read: the best public institutes of the country) vow to settle abroad. But, Mohan returned and chose a life that not many NRIs have guts to do.

“Apni Chaukhat ka diya…giving light to neighbour’s house”
The lamp on my doorstep…is giving light to neighbour’s house

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