Pop culture is often held up by scholars as a mirror to society. In a country as diverse as India, no single form of pop culture can engulf all that India has to offer. However, Bollywood, India’s largest film industry, comes close.
In my opinion, it can be a reasonably effective tool to gauge the collective consciousness of Indian society. Unsurprisingly, much like Indian society, it is dramatically complex. There are multiple ways to analyse the workings within and the films produced by the industry. Analysis in this essay, however, would emphasise the changing pattern of the socio-economic ideology within Bollywood films and their attitude towards classical liberal values viz. individualism, self-interest, success and wealth.
A recent video series by Nimish Adhia, Associate Professor at Manhattanville College, delves deeper into the ideological shift across Bollywood films. Adhia observes that in the 1950s and 60s, when the dominant ideology of the Indian political elite was socialism, Bollywood also followed suit. Films had a strong socialistic fervor and portrayed a suspicion of the businessman. This was also congruent with the Hindu caste system that shaped the ideological beliefs of a significant share of the population at the time. The caste system did not give a high status to businessmen, keeping them in the third varna.
Commonly expressed themes in the films of that era placed emphasis on the common good over self-interest, on suppression of individual desire and on a pejorative portrayal of the wealthy.
Conceptually speaking, the protagonist in any story is the personified repository of virtues and the antagonist is the personified repository of vices, as per the writer of the story. So, the morality conveyed by the story can be understood by the characteristics of its protagonist and antagonist.
Ideological Transition: 1950s – 1990s
Observing the films of the 1950s and 60s, one sees that the “hero” is mostly poor, often a villager, but hardly ever someone wealthy. Wealth was often associated with evil qualities, portrayed by the “villain”. For instance, in the film Upkar, the protagonist, played by Manoj Kumar, is a noble hearted villager who keeps the country’s interest over his own. The protagonist, Bharat, blames Indian farmers, who wish to migrate to cities, and wealthy businessmen for the country’s poverty.
The same ideological pattern could be seen in Do Beegha Zameen. In the film, a poor villager, played by Balraj Sahni, suffers land alienation because a company wants to build a factory on the land. The villains of the film are the landlord turned businessman Harman Singh and the city of Calcutta.
The ideological tide begins to turn in the late 1980s, when the wealthy cease to be seen in the pejorative light of the past. In a 1990 film, Swarg, Rajesh Khanna plays the role of a noble-hearted businessman, who is betrayed by an unscrupulous businessman. His loyal servant, played by Govinda, goes on to become a wealthy film star who avenges the betrayal. This marked a positive view of upward economic mobility.
This shift in perspective is also observed by economic historian and author, Deirdre McCloskey. McCloskey in her book, Bourgeoisie Dignity, studies several countries in the period before their respective industrial revolutions. She finds that economic growth exploded in all of them once wealth creators were given a respectable status and freedom within those societies. Further, she claims that this change in the ideology of the society could also be gauged by the changing ideology in their pop cultures. About Bollywood, she says that in the 1970s the protagonists were mostly bureaucrats and policemen. But by the late 1980s, the protagonists became innovators and businessmen. According to her, Indian society by the late 1980s was ready to give the entrepreneurial class dignity and liberty, which eventually happened in 1991.
In the 1990s, Bollywood saw the entry of the Khan trio and filmmakers such as Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar. The protagonists of this era were “Rahuls” and “Prems”, who were mostly from rich backgrounds and didn’t shy away from flaunting their wealth. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Shah Rukh Khan’s entry in the film was in an actual helicopter!
This marked the moral acceptance of another liberal value – conspicuous consumption. It showed that the masses (at least the section of society who were the primary film audience) who had previously accepted the notion of suppressing individual desire for the common good were no longer in the mood to do so.
What Changed in the 2000s
By the turn of the millennium, liberal values, in particular wealth accumulation, had made a moral transition from vices to virtues. But their virtuosity was still implicit, that they were a peripheral aspect of the protagonist’s personality and the story. Although the protagonists were businessmen, their entrepreneurship was not the core of the film, which was to be the next stage in the moral transition.
This began to happen towards the end of the 2000s with the release of the 2007 film Guru. The film, in many ways, is a milestone – an antithesis of the Nehruvian consensus of the 1950s. The film shows the State and its License-permit Raj as the villains. As a complete contradiction of Upkar, the film showcases the social benefits of individual entrepreneurship and that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Guru was followed by a series of films with entrepreneur protagonists. Next came Rocket Singh in 2009 and Band Baaja Baarat in 2010. Rocket Singh shows in the first half that the mighty of the industry are quasi crooks but eventually the protagonist succeeds because he gives much better service to the clients. That was intelligent because it implied that the market, if left free, can correct itself on its own and the heavy hand of the State is not required, another repudiation of the Nehruvian consensus.
By 2010 the trend of entrepreneurship-based films was firmly in place. Cinema observers predicted the years ahead as the decade of the ‘entrepreneur’ in Bollywood. However, the 2010s witnessed the return of the bureaucrat.
Why did the Bureaucrat Return?
The decade saw the rise of the Dabangg and Singham series, which were mega hits. Indian actor Akshay Kumar donned his nationalist avatar playing an army officer in Holiday and a CRPF officer in Baby. Even the younger generation joined in, when Ranveer Singh played a policeman in Simbaa and Tiger Shroff played an army officer in War.
So, why did the seemingly inevitable flood of entrepreneurship in Bollywood films fail to arrive? Well, I don’t pretend to know the answer, however, I do have a theory.
Towards the end of the decade of 2000s, India was still experiencing the effects of unprecedented economic growth with GDP growth rate surging beyond 9% from 2004 to the first half of 2008. The private sector was the go-to place for talented people. Then two significant events happened – 6th Central Pay Commission and the Global financial crisis.
The first dramatically increased the salaries of Central Government employees and the second resulted in mass layoffs in the private sector. The two events increased the desirability of government jobs and made the private sector less attractive. As per my deduction, a significant section of youth turned away from the vagaries of the market and sought a secure government job. Entrepreneurship was no longer ‘cool’ in the eyes of the youth.
This change can be gauged by the fact that whereas in 2008 about 3,25,000 candidates had appeared for the UPSC exam, the number increased to about 5,50,000 in 2010, and to about 10 lakhs in 2014.
However, Indian youth are diverse and can’t be reduced to a monolithic category. Another important undercurrent was taking shape during the 2010s – the coming of age of the Indian start-up ecosystem. As the decade progressed, this undercurrent has taken the shape of a tsunami. While the first five years of the decade, in total, produced 8 unicorns, the year 2018 alone saw an equal number of start-ups joining the 1-billion-dollar club. The current year has already seen the rise of 26 unicorns, at the last count.
This is the light at the end of the tunnel. As the unicorn revolution gains speed, entrepreneurship will keep on getting a more aspirational status in Indian society. Bollywood would certainly track this trend. Eventually, the missing flood of entrepreneur protagonists of the 2010s should return to the silver screen in the 2020s.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.