Economic policies have inspired many smash-hit film scripts. Here’s a short history of India’s economy since independence seen through the eyes of Bollywood
Millennials may not quite relate to yesteryear funnyman Mehmood’s cult song `No Biwi na bachcha na baap bada na bhaiyya, the whole thing is that ki bhaiyya sabse bada ruppaiya’ from the 1976 epic flick Sabse Bada Ruppaiya.
The movie, which came out soon after Emergency was imposed in 1975, and a few years after a controversial move to devalue the rupee in the mid-sixties, was a telling comment on how tough it was to get by for most Indians.
Films, like any other form of mass media, are life’s imitation in its myriad manifestations. Blockbuster movies of any era tell stories that have a current relevance. From the 1950s to the contemporary, filmmaking quests have sought to convey economic, social and political messages—sometimes obliquely, sometimes in a more candid manner.
Economic policies have inspired many smash-hit film scripts. Here’s a short history of India’s economy since independence seen through the eyes of film scripts. Caveat: This list, by no means, is exhaustive. It has been sourced from various media reports, research papers, and, of course, this author’s own interest in the world’s most vibrant film industry: Bollywood
In 1957 a sulking Guru Dutt delivered this classic line in Pyaasa (Thirsty): “Tum kis ki talash me majnoo bane phir rahe ho?”Naukri”. It forcefully summed up the popular mood against the arrogance of rich of a restive population partly blaming it on the Nehruvian economic model that focused on industrialization.
On the other hand, Satyajit Ray's classic, Pather Panchali (1955), which stormed Cannes a year later, is the quintessential story of growing up in a Nehruvian socialist economy, marked by its simple innocence but crushing rural poverty.
Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953) illustrated a hard economic truth of the time where a heavily indebted poor peasant struggles to hold on to his small plot of land. It’s a film that stitched together the nuances of Requisition and Acquisition of Immovable Property Act 1952 along with the complexities of rural-urban migration.
Mother India (1957) by Mehboob was an epic portrayal of the prevailing economic problems including farm distress and rural indebtedness and a young country’s tender steps towards nation-building through projects such as large dams. The movie earned India its first Academy Awards nomination.
Naya Daur (1957) by BR Chopra articulated the broad theme of industrialisation, the painful process of managing economic transition and the cost of displacement of technological adoption in the backdrop of the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956.
Kala Bazaar (1960) by Vijay Anand, illustrated the dominant economic issues of urban India: money, inflation and government attempts at price control in a period characterised by foreign exchange controls, high inflation and a widening fiscal deficit.
Haqeeqat (1964) by Chetan Anand a blockbuster war movie captured patriotic fervour as India was nursing its wounds shortly after a bloody mountain war with China in 1962
Guide (1965) by Dev Anand, a cult romantic movie, poignantly portrays the vagaries of nature at a time when the country was hit by droughts leaving a devastating effect on the broader economy.
Upkaar (1967) by Manoj Kumar, came in the backdrop of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” slogan as a “Green Revolution” swept through parts of North India multiplying food grain output.
Satyakaam (1969) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee came amid rising chorus against institutionalised corruption and collective angst towards plunging governance standards. The film courageously broached the existence of India’s parallel black economy.1970s
Namak Haram (1973) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee portrayed the clamour towards labour rights in the context of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act 1969 and the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition Act, 1970
Zanjeer (1973) by Prakash Mehra marked the beginning of the “Angry Young Man” metaphor in Indian cinema through a narrative on the evils of spurious drug manufacturing nuanced in the backdrop of Indian Patents Act, 1970.
Deewar (1975) by Yash Chopra was modelled on a real famous smuggler’s life at a time when smuggling of gold was a dominant theme in public discourse and came year after the enactment of the COFEPOSA 1974 to clamp down on foreign exchange manipulation.
Kala Pathar (1979) by Yash Chopra gave a cinematic argument on the need for urgent reforms in India’s coal sector that was dominated by the so called “coal mafia”. The Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act 1972 to regulate a sector hindered by violent conflicts perhaps provided the backdrop to a movie laced with powerful a political message. The recent “Coalgate” scandal only reinforces the movie’s relevance.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) by Kundan Shah is considered by many critics as the best-known satire on the ugly politician-bureaucrat-builder-media nexus during a period that came to be characterised by rapid and unplanned urbanisation. The dialogue “Draupadi tere akele ki nahi hai, hum sab shareholder hain” is now a classic
Saaransh (1984) by Mahesh Bhatt was a poignant remark on bureaucratic sloth, red tape and political insensitiveness to basic human emotions.
Pushpak (1987) by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao reinvented the silent film form, seamlessly blending slapstick comedy with social satire commenting on the plight of educated unemployed youth and growing poor-rich inequality.
Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) by Sooraj Barjatya became a smash-hit coming as a whiff of fresh air for people looking for a break from masala movies. It became an icon for culture of change and pent up demand for a better life ahead of the reforms programme initiated in 1991.
Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) by Sooraj Barjatya became the biggest grossers ever in the history of Hindi cinema. Made on a budget of around Rs. 5 crore, it went on to collect an estimated Rs. 120 crore. Queues returned at the theatres planting the seeds for the emerging of the multiplex industry and inspiring young filmmakers such as Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra.
In Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), Aamir Khan actually plays a garment exporter, while Taal (1999) was about NRI tycoons. In Yaadein (2001), Hrithik Roshan plays a “dotcom” entrepreneur.
Gupt (1997) by Rajiv Rai is a gripping whodunit that weaves the debate for and against economic liberalisation. A discussion among a group of influential people—politician, industrialists and labour union leaders—on “the open door policy” or market economy is central to the movie’s plot.
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) by Aditya Chopra is racy romantic comedy about first generation non-resident Indians (NRI) as the Indian economy, growing at a fast clip, tries to catch up with the rest of the world. Most viewers still remember a boyish Shah Rukh Khan’s iconic line: “Koi baat nahi Senorita, bade bade deshon main aisi chhoti chhoti baatein hoti rehti hai”
Haseena Maan Jayegi (1999) was a romantic comedy that came shortly after the New Telecom Policy of 1999 had a hit number “What is your mobile number” depicting the beginning of the widespread use of cell phones aided by falling tariff and handset costs
The first decade of the new millennium records the best growth in independent India’s history. From 2005 for three consecutive years, India’s GDP grows by more than 9.5 percent. Welfare programmes such as the national rural employment guarantee scheme mark a watershed in India’s public policy making. The Bollywood hits of this decade reflected this change.
In many ways, Dil Chahta Hain (2001) by Farhan Akhtar turned out to be a point of inflection in Indian filmmaking. It was unapologetic in bringing about rising ambitions of the millennials and the new generation urban youth, willing to break from the past, seek new pastures in personal as well as professional spheres. Millions could instantly relate to “Yehi haal raha to mere budaaape tak ek aadh cheque to sign kar hi loge Dad, zindagi mein cheque sign karne ke ilaava bhi bhaut kuch hai.”
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) wins an Oscar nomination in the non-English film category, signalling the arrival of Indian film-making in the world stage.
Madhur Bhandarkar’s Corporate (2006) earned rave reviews for telling the story about dark maneuvering in a cut-throat corporate world, where relationships are driven by the sole motive of profit maximisation.
Fashion (2008), another Bhandarkar blockbuster, stood out for its accurate depiction of the dark underbelly of the heady world of glamour and ramp walks.
Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots (2009) adopted from Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone, questioned the futility of the Indian education system, where learning by rote and getting a job were the primary characteristics that stunted innovation and critical thinking.
Peepli Live (2010) by Anusha Rizvi, a comic satire, poignantly illustrates the indebtedness of farmers, the response of politicians and the media. It is even more relevant given that farm distress that is sweeping India currently.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dubara (2011), created in the same template of Dil Chahta Hain, Zoya Akhtar shows the adulthood of Indian youth, global in outlook and imbibed with a risk-taking ability.
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