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Will `Swades' repeat the `Lagaan' magic ?

Ashutosh Gowarikar is back with "Swades," three years after "Lagaan." This film, to be released in Hindi and Tamil on December 17, will be a sort of litmus test for him as expectations are high. SREEDHAR PILLAI finds the director confident that it will work wonders at the box-office.

"Swades" stars Shah Rukh Khan and Gayatri Joshi. The new tale is packed with emotion, romance, humour and the captivating music of A. R. Rahman.

THREE YEARS after that cult classic "Lagaan," which raised the Oscar hopes of all Indians, the man behind it all, Ashutosh Gowarikar is back with his latest film "Swades."

It stars Bollywood's biggest star Shah Rukh Khan, Dayashankar Pandey (Goli of "Lagaan"), debutante Gayatri Joshi and a few artistes who play villagers. The film has some great classical numbers from A. R. Rahman and the pick of the album is "Yunhi Chala Chal...," sung by Udit Narayan, Hariharan and Kailash Kher, which is scorching the charts.

For Ashutosh, "Swades" is a sort of litmus test, as this time expectations are high and moreover it is his first film without Aamir Khan, his onetime favourite. Ashutosh has been so closely identified with Aamir that his critics in Bollywood have been saying that "Lagaan" was `ghost-directed' by the star.

So in many ways "Swades" is important and may become the director's calling card in the future. The USP of "Swades" is undoubtedly King Khan for whom the film is sort of a benchmark as he has to prove that he can churn out a blockbuster without the backing of the Chopras and Johars.

Ashutosh Gowarikar has recently been invited to become a lifetime member on the Oscar Jury. He took time off from his five-hour trip to Chennai, where he had an audio launch of "Desam," the Tamil dubbed version of "Swades," to talk about his project. Excerpts:

Why has it taken you three years to make your next film after "Lagaan?"

Ashutosh Gowarikar hopes to prove the trade pundits wrong again with "Swades".

"Lagaan" was a landmark film. After the release in India it went to various film festivals and even to the Oscars. "Lagaan" was screened in places where Indian films have never been shown and hence I was globe-trotting for more than a year. But by 2003, I started work on the script of "Swades" and we started the shoot in Wai, at the foothills of Panchgani in Maharashtra in January this year. The shoot was completed in five months and it took another five months for post-production. I think, considering the scale of "Swades" we were on schedule.

What is the concept and idea behind "Swades"?

Actually the idea of "Swades" evolved while I was working on the script of "Lagaan," in 1996, . The concept of "Swades" is that we are surrounded by issues, mainly social which we take for granted as though they are somebody else's problem. I thought that we should stop passing the buck and "Swades" is about initiating a change.

"Swades" is also set in a village like "Lagaan." Please comment.

I think India's soul is in its villages and remember that all of us city slickers have our roots in villages from where our fathers and grandfathers came. We are all villagers living in urban India. My story required the village milieu where a lot of grass-root problems exists.

What is the story of "Swades" in a nutshell?

The story is about Mohan Bhargav (Shah Rukh Khan), a young dynamic scientist at NASA working on a rainfall monitoring satellite Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), which is sent into orbit aboard a space shuttle. When Mohan decides to take a break he does not opt for an exotic place but chooses New Delhi in search of his nani, Kaveriamma (Kishori Balal), who now lives in Charanpur, a fictional village.

Mohan travels to the village where he comes across Geeta (Gayatri Joshi) his childhood sweetheart and also discovers a whole new world where problems exist in day-to-day life.

The village is caste-ridden, has water problems, illiteracy is rampant and there is no basic infrastructure.

Moved by the villager's plight, Mohan decides to stay back and do something about it. He takes a look at all the issues that he had initially turned his back on, and organises the villagers to fight the system.

It looks like the story is about a modern day NGO. Where are the commercial elements in the film to make it a Bollywood entertainer?

(Smiles) Let me tell you about a big Bollywood film released recently. It had big stars, glamorous leading ladies, at least three item numbers, exotic foreign locations, action and all required commercial elements that you are talking about. But this film not only failed to make an opening but was critically butchered. So how do you define the commercial aspect?

So how is "Swades" different from "Lagaan"?

To be frank, "Lagaan" had all the action of a nail-biting one-day cricket match but "Swades" has more emotion. My story telling has always been in an entertainment format with no item numbers and mindless violence but is packed with emotion, romance, humour, great music and also takes up an issue of empowerment and self-reliance. Let me put it this way — Shah Rukh Khan is a big Bollywood star who can bring the audience to the theatres but ultimately I feel it is the story that will decide whether they will sit through 3 hours and 15 minutes of the film !

Any inspiration behind the making of "Swades"?

I found a lot of empowerment examples in a book `Bapu Kuti' by Rajni Bakshi about people who are selflessly working towards the community's development in small towns and villages of India.

Then I read about this guy, Ramesh Ramanathan, who had a cushy job in Citibank in the U.S. who gave up all comforts to return to his hometown in Bangalore to set up Janaagraha, a citizen initiative to improve governance through public participation.

The result of Ramesh's hard work is that today, Bangaloreans have a say in the city's corporation budgetary allocation. And that is what "Swades" is all about — every man can make a difference to the society.

Tell us about the performance of Shah Rukh Khan and others in the cast?

Shah Rukh as Mohan Bhargav is the pivot round which my story revolves. He is brilliant as he was able to imbibe the traits of Mohan like being spontaneous and volatile. I wanted a fresh supporting cast as the people whom Mohan encounters in the village should be new faces. I was able to persuade veteran director Lekh Tandon to do the role of a villager. Rest of the cast like Gayatri Joshi have played their roles convincingly.

What about A. R. Rahman's music?

Rahman and I go a long way back to our "Lagaan" days. Actually Javed Saab's lyrics have lifted the script to a new level. As a team we vibe well and both of us agreed that we would not go for loud music and instead settle for simple sounds which are soothing. And the "Yunhi Chala Chal... " and "Yeh Tara Woh Tara... " have become popular with the youth. The film's music is straight from Rahman's heart.

Why did you decide to dub and release the film as "Desam" in Tamil?

I feel that "Swades" has a universal appeal and a Pan-Indian feeling about it. The message I wanted to convey through the film can penetrate to the interiors, only if it is dubbed. Moreover, the Shah Rukh Khan-Rahman combination is a major draw in Tamil Nadu and it made commercial sense to release the film as "Desam" in Tamil.

Are you worried about the commercial success of "Swades"?

Remember, that at the time of "Lagaan's" release similar questions were raised by trade pundits and the film proved them wrong. I am sure that "Swades" will work wonders at the box-office and be another path-breaking film.

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