Mixing masala plotlines with musicals for mass appeal, the Hindi cinema industry, Bollywood, serves up dreams of romance to millions around the world. But one overlooked aspect of Bollywood is how its movies capture the changing business zeitgeist in India.
During the 'licence raj' in the 70s and the 80s, while India was posting its so-called 'Hindu rate of economic growth' of around 3.5 percent a year, Bollywood portrayed industrialists as villains. These were rich men who lived in palatial buildings, befriended politicians for licenses and permits, smuggled goods, evaded taxes, and exploited labourers. Meanwhile, their pampered daughters supplied the song-and-dance melodrama by falling in love with the hero-invariably one of papa's angry young opponents, who'd be a police officer or a factory worker from a slum nearby.
Since the mid-90s, however, with India's annual economic growth averaging about seven percent, Bollywood has churned out decidedly pro-capitalist movies. The bad industrialists are gone. So too are the pitiable poor who tug at the heartstrings of socialists everywhere. It's not labour and factories that make up the plots of today's movies. Instead, they are about the intra-family relationships of wealthy multi-generational clans with roots in India and branches elsewhere.
The patriarchs are shown worrying about keeping 'Indian family values' stable, while their stunningly beautiful scions party hard in the discos of London and New York.
Tellingly, this celluloid applause of business families comes at a time when Indian businessmen-the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis, and others-have become globally daring players. These entrepreneurs hire top-notch talents, spot global opportunities, structure complex deals, and are not afraid to elbow out foreign rivals to buy, sell and run companies anywhere. Their audacity, unthinkable only 15 years ago, makes even ordinary commerce graduates in small-town India aspire to such riches themselves.
Bollywood has picked up on that collective aspiration. It has started to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs who triumph against systems that shackle them. The protagonist of director Mani Ratnam's latest movie Guru is Gurubhai, a Gujarati village-boy who wants to create his own destiny in business by never taking 'no' for an answer. Using both diplomacy and hardball tactics to cut through the red tape, he starts his own polyester company, and goes on to fling open the gates of clubby Indian commerce. In doing so, he lets ordinary citizens in to reap benefits as shareholders.
The movie's sympathetic portrayal of the power of an entrepreneur's can-do attitude, persistence, and single-minded devotion to create a business is remarkable enough. What is even more interesting is its view that, far from being a tool of exploitation, a business with a large base of shareholders is a ladder that gets ordinary citizens to the ranks of the middle class.
Contrast that thought with the palaver one hears these days about New Nepal. Even with grinding poverty visible within any three-mile radius of Kathmandu, our political conversations continue to degenerate into games of blame distribution. There is hardly any thought being put into transforming Nepal into a stable country of the middle class.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal's rhetoric against foreign banks last Tuesday confirmed that he doesn't care how economic forces work. Despite his cloyingly self-serving self-criticism, Dahal stopped short of urging his comrades to refrain from helping themselves to the fruits of other Nepalis' private earnings. Given Dahal's admitted weakness for message-driven Hindi movies, it is time that, in the quiet of the cinema hall, he took a critical look at his Marxist gurus' ideology and made up his mind to let thousands of Gurubhai-like characters flourish in Nepal.