April 27, 2021
A project manager at NASA feels an invisible thread pulling him to India. It isn’t nostalgia for home, but love for the woman who raised him. And so he returns on a short assignment, to convince this woman who has lived in India her entire life to leave with him for America. But somewhere along the way, he discovers love, a kinship with his people, and most importantly, what he owes to his country of birth.
In 2004, this premise didn’t ideally make for a Shah Rukh Khan film. Khan dominated that year’s box office as the lead actor in two blockbusters — Veer-Zaara and Main Hoon Na. If the former capitalized on his trademark romantic pining, then the latter was perfectly packaged to flaunt his family-friendly avatar — the go-to older son, brother, lover, or patriotic officer. Nor was Swades reflective, in scale or scope, of director Ashutosh Gowariker’s prior film, the Academy Award-nominated cricket drama Lagaan (2001). And yet, Swades, which focused on the quiet journey of a non-resident Indian’s (NRI) shifting relationship with his homeland, has over time become one of Khan’s most critically loved movies. By centering Indians who live abroad, Swades joins the ranks of the Hindi films targeted to the diaspora market. But it differs from the glamorized storytelling popularized by Karan Johar’s and Aditya Chopra’s films by exploring both the privilege and burden of being an NRI.
The NRI genre of Hindi cinema — movies about the families and struggles of the Indian diaspora — emerged in the 1990s as a consequence of the liberalization of India and waves of migration out of India. Pre-1990s films used foreign locales to demonstrate a character's class or education status (Lamhe, Devdas), or to establish a westernized character as anti-Indian in morality and lifestyle (Purab Aur Paschim, Hare Rama Hare Krishna). With the 1990s liberalization came an increased consumption of Western media in India (think Friends) and greater migration to the West. Bollywood films, too, started catering to both Indians with global aspirations and sensibilities as well as audiences outside of India. The NRI brand of Hindi cinema emerged as a strategic genre that both helped Indians reconcile their Indian and Western identities as well as sell more tickets in diaspora countries.
In these movies, nostalgia for the home they left behind was sprinkled on like fairy dust. Living in foreign countries and wearing global brands didn’t make one any less Indian, so long as you had your “sanskar” (values) in place. Think Raj (Khan) from Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995) — which could be credited with heralding the genre — and his quest to prove his Indianness to Simran’s (Kajol) stern, conservative father (Amrish Puri). Tina Malhotra (Rani Mukerji), a London returnee in Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1997), could wear the latest London fashion but still sing “Om Jai Jagdish” like she had just stepped out of a temple, and wanted to finish her last year of college not at Oxford, but at India’s St. Xavier’s.
And Khan continues to be the biggest star of this genre. His most recognizable films, too, were part of this brand of cinema: DDLJ, Pardes (1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) were all big-budget, lavishly designed spectacles that pandered to the diaspora. In these typical NRI films, the identity of being Indian is about personal expression — in language, family, and the choice of a life partner. These films also offered a caricatured version of what life ought to look like for diaspora Indians: large mansions, private helicopters, successful businesses (yet no one knew what they really did), spoiled kids.