The freshness and characterization that made “Lagaan” such a trailblazer for Bollywood’s crossover potential is scarcely visible in filmer Ashutosh Gowariker’s subsequent pic, “Swades.” Straight-arrow, single-issue story about a NASA engineer who returns to India and finds himself at odds with its traditional values moseys along for more than three hours with a modicum of charm but almost no dramatic highs and an ending that’s signposted from reel two. Pent-up interest and the presence of superstar Shah Rukh Khan will ensure a strong opening but legs look wobbly once word gets out on the Dec. 17 worldwide release.
Khan plays Mohan Bhargava, an Indian expatriate working on a project to study worldwide rainfall at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C. On the anniversary of his parents’ death in an auto accident, Mohan gets homesick and takes two weeks’ vacation to track down his beloved wet-nurse, Kaveri (Kishori Ballal).
When he finds her in a remote village east of Delhi, Mohan also re-meets childhood friend Gita (model Gayatri Joshi), who’s now an idealistic teacher dedicated to improving her people’s lot. When Mohan tells her he wants to take Kaveri back to the States, Gita is horrified, though she slowly warms to Mohan’s boyish appeal.
In the best of the pic’s so-so musical numbers, staged during an outdoor screening of the 1973 classic, “Yaadon ki baraat,” Mohan tries to heal the caste divisions which he sees as holding back progress. But it’s only when he uses his engineering skills to solve the village’s chronic electricity problems that he impresses the locals.
Gowariker’s unforced shooting style — halfway between mainstream Bollywood and non-commercial fare — is the same as in “Lagaan,” but this time is let down by a schematic, non-dramatic script. And, despite the widely signaled ending, there’s something unsettling about making the central character — a self-satisfied expatriate determined to bring Western values to poor Indian peasants — a charmer.
Khan keeps the movie on its feet through pure screen presence, but newcomer Joshi gets few chances to develop the beautiful young teacher, beyond portraying her as an uptight grouch. Although Khan and Joshi previously appeared in a commercial together, they have little natural chemistry, which further weakens their unconvincing love story.
Ballal is more flavorsome as the wise old wet-nurse, and supports like Dayashankar Pandey (as a cook who dreams of starting a dhaba franchise Stateside) and Rajesh Vivek (as the local postmaster) add some amusing color.
Lensing makes the most of the scenic opportunities without any high gloss. But dialogue by K.P. Saxena often seems more intent on lecturing than entertaining. “Swades” literally means “Homeland.”