In November 2003, the two engineers were awarded a 'Technovators' prize by the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology in the USA. The astonishing thing was, neither I nor anyone else who knew the pair was able to reach them to tell them about this. They did not respond to phone calls, e-mail, nothing. For all we knew, they were off in another remote corner of India, doing another project, quietly putting their training to use, as we had seen them do twice over, for the benefit of those who need it most. It wasn't until months later that someone confirmed to me that they had indeed found out about the MIT award.
Anil and Madhu are two young engineers from Kerala. What they accomplished, I found simply remarkable. And after recognition at MIT, they apparently touched a chord somewhere in Bollywood. In Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades, as you no doubt know by now, Shah Rukh Khan plays an engineer who does just what I watched Anil and Madhu do.
Swades spoke to me
Now I think it is a good film, though it also has its inevitable moments of Bollywood-style drama and could do with being an hour shorter. But for me, the best thing about Swades was the understated message about what I found so inspiring about those two young men in the first place. Their quiet patriotism. A patriotism they didn't even think about.
Anil and Madhu build 'micro-hydel' projects: small dams across small rivers, enough to supply small villages with drinking water and electricity. I saw them do this at two different spots in the Narmada valley in northern Maharashtra. First, Domkhedi, where they lit six huts with 30-watt compact fluorescent lamps. That's six huts, an entire hamlet, that had never ever had electricity. One of those belonged to an old woman with a gently-etched face called Khatri Vasave. She was so moved by the Kerala pair -- so moved by this demonstration that some fellow Indians, at any rate, cared about her life -- that she wept, as I watched one afternoon, to see Anil leave for home on a hard-earned vacation.
Yet Domkhedi was just the warm-up act. Spurs earned there, Anil and Madhu moved upriver and branched right -- along a Narmada tributary called the Udai, to a place watched over by the lush hills of Nandurbar district. If Domkhedi was impressive, what they produced in Bilgaon takes your breath away. Their dam and water-channel and tank and pipes and generator, together, send electricity arcing into 300 -- three hundred, yes -- homes that never had it. And a tribal school that never had it either.
What do you say about these men who, unlike so many of us engineers, get down and apply their learning, and apply it to visibly better the lives of people around them? People they don't even know? There's little to say. Take your hat off to them, is all. Find inspiration in them, is all.
The column that inspired Swades
This seems to be what fired Swades: it's been written about, but it bears repeating. Shah Rukh Khan is Mohan Bhargava, NASA engineer from the States who comes to an Indian village that's without electricity and many other things as well. After learning a deal about the dynamics of Charanpur, he slowly comes to understand that he must build a dam here and light bulbs. In the huts in the village, of course; but also, allegorically, in himself. Nods to standard film formulae notwithstanding, he does just that.
When the dam is done, the first bulb comes to life in, brings light to, a hut belonging to Charanpur's own Khatri Vasave, an old woman with a face just as magically lined as hers. Everyone cheers. You feel a tug at the cynical old heartstrings.
The Ashutosh Gowariker interview
But you've felt that tug earlier in the film as well. Swades sends out a number of messages: about self-reliance, and the hollow brutality of caste, and finding your purpose, and the meaning of culture and tradition, and giving of yourself, and patriotism. To me, the film works because of these ideas. Because it says that patriotism is about caring for your fellow human beings, about living for your country, about finding your purpose and acting on it.
After all, those are the things I learned from Anil and Madhu.
And for me, the high water mark of Swades is the exchange about culture and tradition. After a Dussehra celebration, the village elders sit Mohan down and ask him about life in the USA. One -- whose gentle but firm hostility for the US-returned engineer is an undercurrent through the film -- listens for a while and then pronounces: 'Yes, but India has something they'll never have there, something that makes our country great: our sanskriti and parampara.'
The short pause that follows this is the fulcrum of the film. One way it might swing from here is to agree with this and move on: after all, wouldn't all of us in Swades's audience love to believe in the seductive warmth of Mera Bharat Mahan?
But to Gowariker's credit, he chooses another way. Also gentle but firm, Mohan takes issue with the elder. Without needing it spelled out, we know what he is talking about -- all that he's encountered in Charanpur -- when he says: 'We have everything it takes to be great, but we are not a great country today. We let too many things happen that only pull us down.'
We are not great merely because we say we are. Or think we are. There's too much that's wrong around us.
The scene works because it ends soon, and these themes are not explored ad nauseum. But it also works because deep down, we all know the truth in what Mohan says. What might we achieve if we got beyond the things that hamstring us: caste and religion, corruption and apathy, choose your own?
Swades answers such questions on screen just as Anil and Madhu did in real life. When you get down to it, just forget the obstacles and simply get to work, you can do a lot. For example, you can build a dam. Turn night into day. Bring hope. Squeeze tears from an old woman's eyes. Build a nation. Inspire.
I saw all that happen in two small villages in the Narmada Valley. And then a NASA boss understands what drives Mohan Bhargava and tells him: 'Go light your bulb!' Yes, it is just a film. But you know that understanding might just be a greater award than even MIT has on offer.
Special: All about Swades
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