A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Comparing one of our most thought provoking films Swades (2004) and the biting denigration of media portrayed in TV series The Newsroom (2012) might seem like comparing apples and oranges. But there are two scenes that are strikingly similar in that they show India and America have more in common than either one would like to admit.
“It’s not the greatest country in the world, that is my answer” – Will McAvoy (The Newsroom)
“Main nahi manta, hamara desh duniya ka sabse mahaan desh hai” – Mohan Bhargav ( Swades)
(I don’t believe we are the greatest country in the world)
I am talking about the opening scene of The Newsroom and Swades’ confrontation scene between Mohan and the villagers. Sorkin’s scene is set in the direct glare of contemporary media while Gowarikar’s is in an orthodox village with no electricity. The drastic difference between the settings of two scenes notwithstanding, Jeff Daniels’ indictment of the “greatness” of America is as convincing as Shahrukh Khan’s outburst against regressive traditions and ideologies.
1. Acknowledging the problem
In The Newsroom, the liberals and conservatives are busy debating why America is great. While in Swades, the older generation firmly believes that woeful customs like caste system makes the country best in the world. Consumed by the utter ignorance and silence of the populace, both Mohan and Will muster the courage born out of sheer frustration. They do the unthinkable.
They acknowledge the problem.
“When you say we are the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about” – Will
“Galliyon mein, sadko mein hum yahi kehte rehte hai ki ye desh barbadi ki aur badh raha hai. Agar hum yahi kehte rahe, to sach mein ek din ye desh barbad ho jayega” – Mohan
(In every nook and corner of the country, everyone keeps saying we are doomed. If we keep saying such things, one day we will indeed be destroyed)
Both men defiant against the delusional jingoism take responsibility in tackling the problem. Perhaps, in the hope that others would see reason in the madness.
2. Ownership and all inclusiveness
Mohan’s case in Swades is a tricky one as he balances the stubborn close-mindedness on one hand and the dejection of oppressed Indians on the other. He does the exact opposite of what most of us do. Mohan refuses to blame anyone in particular but rather takes ownership of the problem. He takes the unity-driven approach often observed in great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
“Hum sab ek dusre ko dosh derahe hai. Jabki sacchai ye hai ki hum sab hi doshi hai” – Mohan
(All we do is keep blaming each other, when the truth is we are all equally responsible)
“We didn’t identify ourselves with who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy” – Will
Will not only avoids taking sides in the scene, he practically ridicules both the Democrats and Republicans. Will’s oration might not directly address unity, but there is a clear message that division and fear on the basis of silly and baseless information is what has led to this mess.
3. Facts-driven approach
In The Newsroom, Will throws the hard reality in the face of ignorance about America. It is almost tragic as he dismantles a college student and describes how it is the exact opposite of the question she asked. Contrary to popular opinion, Will proves unequivocally that there is nothing in America that other nations in the world don’t have except things that everybody should be ashamed of.
“We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered” – Will
“Jab bhi hum muqable mein dabne lagte hai, hum ek hi cheez ka aadhar lete hai, sanskar aur parampara” – Mohan
(Every time we start falling behind in a race, we blow the trumpet of sacraments and traditions)
Mohan, although bereft of numbers, paints the actual situation of the country in the most human terms. Government apathy, farmer debts, blatant corruption and illiteracy are the foundations of a dwindling country, not a great one.
Will’s soliloquy is strong in the American context where the country is struggling to match its past glories. While, Mohan’s speech is striving to push aside the Indian desolation that mars the aspiring greatness of the country.
There is a bittersweet contradiction when we compare these two scenes. In Swades, the conflict of the scene is comparing America’s greatness with India while in The Newsroom, the solid doubt whether America can be considered great is put forth. Nonetheless, Swades and The Newsroom sounded the wake-up call that both America and India didn’t deserve but one they needed. The alarm remains as relevant even today where one country is divided on the basis of xenophobia and prejudice. And the other is fighting hard to open up its mind and change.
In times when people are voting to make nations great again (pun intended), it’s essential to examine and introspect what greatness we are talking about.
Sorkin’s and Gowarikar’s interpretations of a country’s greatness may appear different on the surface. But both are anchored in the most basic human tendencies that make for an inspiring film and a TV series adapted from real-life events.
Indeed, art reflects society and society inspires art.
By Shridhar Kulkarni