In the recent Bollywood hit Swades, Shah Rukh Khan's character, Mohan Bhargava, plans a visit to India to reconnect with his roots and search for his childhood caretaker, whom he misses dearly. Upon arrival, he discovers that she has moved into the country's deep, rural hinterland and he embarks on a journey to locate her. He eventually does and spends the rest of his trip with her and the fellow villagers in a fictional town, deep in central-India. His quickie, two-week trip extends far longer and transforms into an intimate journey of discovery about himself and the people of his homeland.
|Kaushal Mehta : "I was taken aback by the extent of poverty." |
It is an emotionally wrenching plot that tugs at the hearts of 20 million overseas Indians worldwide. The stupendous success of the movie in overseas Indian markets demonstrates that it touched a raw emotional nerve. But how removed from real life is the fictional Mohan? Little India explored the experience of three young, diverse NRIs - Kaushal Mehta, Venu Kohli, and Meeta Patel - on their first visit to the homeland.
In the film, Mohan's return journey was delayed because of the obligations of his job at NASA. NRIs can relate to those logistical concerns. Canadian-born Kohli, a newly minted college graduate, had never traveled to India because of pressing academic obligations: "I've actually wanting to go for a long time. This was the first opportunity that I had due to the fact that I was done school and had no other pending commitments at the time."
Mehta, 26, a recent biochemistry graduate from University of California, San Diego: "My family was in Kenya, my dad's relatives were all in Kenya. In fact, my dad has only been to India once as a kid when he was 7. My mom's side had come here to the states years ago. We did not have much family in India that was close. Therefore, we never went there. While, I consider myself pretty cultured for having not gone to India before, I wanted to see what it was like. I just felt I had to visit my roots. "
He went with three other friends (who had been to India before) and his brother. His trip was laced with nervous excitement and childlike curiosity. "Since it was my first time, I wanted to go everywhere. I wasn't sure where to stay since we had no family, so we just ended up staying in hotels. We booked all the nice ones and went to Delhi, Kerala, Bangalore, Mumbai, Goa and then, finally Gujarat. We did the whole tourist thing. I speak Gujrati and Hindi fluently since Kenya is kind of like 'mini-India.' I also learnt Hindi from friends and movies living in America and it proved to be very helpful there."
It is no surprise that mainstream Bollywood movies serve as cultural ambassadors to most NRIs abroad. But Swades is the rare Bollywood film rooted in the rural countryside of India, without the usual "fluff" of escapist India cinema of India. In the movie, Mohan visits a remote village to collect rent from a poor tenant. The experience leaves him depressed, tired, confused, and guilt-ridden because of the poverty he witnesses along the way.
For the first time, he comprehends that while he had been living in a bubble of material comfort in the United States, many poor Indians were living contently even in poverty, which all the more ironical considering that a sense of contentment eluded him.
|Shah Rukh Khan in Swadesh.|
Mehta experienced a similar epiphany: "I didn't like the fact that the value for life was not there. People were hungry, lots of beggars, and so on. I had heard that, but seeing it was a whole new story. I was also shocked by the class difference; one minute we were at the 5-star Taj Hotel, where you couldn't tell that you were in India, and a block away, you could see people sleeping on the streets. I felt the rich had it really good and the poor had it just as bad. I still made every effort to talk to everyone there and ended up talking to all the cab drivers. They hardly made anything, but were happy. I had received so many warnings from people saying that to be careful, they'll rip you off, or don't leave your bags unattended, people will steal your money, among other horrible things. I didn't find any of that to be true. On the contrary, I found people to be very helpful and very nice."
But the poverty was jarring. Says Kohli: "I was really taken back by the extent of poverty.... I wasn't expecting to see so many homeless people everywhere I went. It was especially hard seeing the young children. All this was hard to adjust too at first"
Like Mehta, Kohli carried with her a brewing curiosity, longing to travel all over India, and tried to cram as much as she could in her four week visit. "I spent a few days in Mumbai as well as Pune. I also stayed in New Delhi for two weeks and traveled to Jalandar and Amritsar. I went with my mom; all of her family, except for an uncle in California, resides in India. So we went to visit my family. I especially wanted to see my grandmother (my mom's mother)."
Before going, however, Kohli made sure she was abreast on the latest Indian trends and the general atmosphere using the latest Bollywood blockbuster as her guides. Did these images present themselves accurately as reference points? Kohli felt so. "I was actually quite surprised to see how alike the 'India' I knew from Hindi movies was to the 'real' thing, like the bazaars, taxi's, rickshaws, and corruption. I was quite taken by the corruption that takes place in India and what having money really means. This meant how easy it is to buy your way through many situations. The amount of pollution, too, was shocking. I never expected it to be that bad!"
Kohli's laundry lists of annoyances were on a more micro-level, and, as she learned, a part of Indian culture that is unlikely change anytime soon. She was especially turned off by the lecherous looks of men, perennial traffic jams, constantly being called "madam," overbearing and pesky annoying "tour guides" at every tourist attraction.
|Venu Kohli: "I was actually surprised to see how alike the 'India' I knew from Hindi movies was to the 'real' thing." |
Nevertheless, she concedes her undeniable attraction with the culture and way of life: "There where many things I just loved. The food, the shopping, and, most importantly, seeing family that I'd never met before. I loved the scenery, most of the time. And even the weather, although it got unbearably hot at times. I enjoyed watching TV there, especially the Hindi dramas. In fact there was never "nothing to watch'" there! I enjoyed visiting places I had only seen on TV and in pictures, such as the Taj Mahal and The Golden Temple. I also enjoyed seeing where my parents grew up and learning a bit more about them."
It took some time for 26-year-old Patel to develop appreciation for the strange homeland of his forebears. He first had to come to terms with the pervasive poverty everywhere, which was a particularly painful ordeal to deal with because it was her first impression of the country. "It was the one thing that really upset me. As we left the airport and found our family the first thing I noticed was the distinguished smell and the heat. Then a little girl, no older then 5, and her younger brother, who was probably about 3, were both holding hands and they approached me. The little girl asked me for money, and before I could say anything the family that picked us up, made them leave us alone. It took me completely off guard, even though I knew before I came to India that it was a place with a lot of poverty. Sadly, seeing children beg for money during my trip became a very frequent sight."
Patel said she too had never traveled to India before because scholastic obligations. Her exposure to the homeland in adulthood, she says, developed in her an appreciation at her fortune at having the many opportunities she has had being born in America, which many of the India children will not - a conclusion that left Mohan eternally conflicted.
As the trip progressed, Patel took mental notes of things that took her time to adjust, like the animals outside the door in the villages where she stayed, free-roaming elephants on the roads, and the howling wild dogs that would fight at night.
Then there was the pervasive corruption and unpredictable electricity outages. "The police there are really corrupt. My aunt and I got pulled over, because she wasn't wearing a seat belt and he asked her from Rs 500. She bargained her way down to Rs 50 and then he let us go. And the power outages there was really annoying; electricity went out every 30 minutes!"
Electricity played a big part of symbolism in Swades. For a westerner used to a near-flawless electric supply, even 30 minutes without electricity is a blunt reminder that India is indeed a different country. In the film, Mohan uses his cinematic liberties to build a mini-power plant for his adopted village.
In "filmi" fashion, he infuses western solutions for a perennial Indian problem.
In real life, that was not a option for the NRI travelers. Over time, like the locals, they adjusted the "fact of life" and did their best to cope in the searing heat.
And they discovered an eye-opening and life changing experience. Patel rode in rickshaws, scooters, and trains. "It's all really a different type of experience. There are no car seats, no traffic control, everyone piles up in one rickshaw," Patel chuckles.
She also visited the village her dad grew up in and the little house he lived in with 7 siblings. "I met relatives that I had not ever seen. It was really neat to see were my dad grew up with my uncles and aunts and the places that he had seen as a child. I met many of my dad's oldest friends and college friends."
Don't get any of them started on the food. Says Patel: "Before I left I was given specific instructions by my dad and fiancé not to eat off any of the food cart vendors and stalls in India on the street because, if I did, I'd get really sick. All this advice went out the door, because one day when me, my mom, my cousin and uncle went to a street were they had about 15 -20 carts of all this amazing food. I had to try it out! I ate samoas, bhel puri, dosas, and lots of other things. This became a regular thing and everyone was amazed that I did not get sick once. Something about the food there was just different. It was probably some of the best food I had ever eaten."
Mehta's visit coincided with Holi, which proved a real-life Bollywood-sized event.
"I was lucky enough to be there during Holi festival. It was the first time that I felt like I was reliving an event that I had only seen in Hindi movies." The night before they started Holi with poojas, then the next day, the color-wars began. "It was amazing. We were all dressed in old clothing, mostly white, and then went from house to house coloring each other. It was so much fun. I was drenched in all kinds of colors to the point that my mom did not even recognize me. I think Holi is one of my most memorable times in India."
Shopping, however, wasn't quite as glamorous. Patel, a self-confessed shop-a-holic, says she had never experienced the sheer brute force of Indian merchants and she wasn't impressed by their antics. "Going there I was so thrilled to shop and buy all these different things and once I got there I just did not want to deal with the people at the shops. Going store to store seeing saris and outfits that I would never wear wore my patience out.
"The people in the stores would show me things that were covered in embroidery or colors that I would not be caught dead in. The same things were shown over and over again and all the same comments, like, 'sista' this is newest style or new fashion or new color!' After being at a store for an hour, they would finally bring out clothing that was little more to my taste. The prices were ridiculous in many of the places and a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was obvious that they knew we were from America. So they would double or triple the prices. I got really tired of the storeowners trying to push saris on me!"
Does she see herself paying a return visit then? "Yes, of course. I plan to go back next year to India for my cousins wedding. And, I plan stay as long as I can. Just no shopping!" she vows.
Mehta and Kohli are similarly hooked. The visit did little to satiate their curiosity, rather fanned it.
In Swades, the simple act of returning to America, getting "back to normal" is not that simple for Mohan - not after his searing experience leads him to the conclusion that he is more Indian than American, symbolized in the movie's signature song, "Yeh Jo Desh Hai Tera."
The experiences of Mehta, Kohli, and Patel, not being quite as dramatic as Mohan's, do not lead them quite as far. But they are all mesmerized by India's uncommon charm and recognize it as a part of their identity. With Mohan, they too can hum: Yeh jo desh hai tera, swades hai tera / tujhe hai pukara/ ye woh bandhan hai jo tooth nahin sakta (this country of yours is your motherland / and is calling out to you / this is a bond which can never break).