Indian films have by and large not told hardcore business-centric stories, but we are getting there.
On November 19, ukprogressive.co.uk, an independent portal reported how ultra nationalist Jair Bolsonaro's rise to the highest seat of power in Brazil, the most biodiverse nation on Earth has cast a shadow over the first global environment conference. This underlined once again, the link between politics, ecologically irresponsible businesses and the impact the two can cumulatively have on human destiny.
Fears have been expressed that and we quote, "the former army captain will disrupt international efforts to prevent the collapse of natural life support systems in the same way that Donald Trump is undermining cooperation to stabilise the climate."
But much before the battles between corporate lobbies and protectors and consumers of natural resources became full-blown headlines all over the world, Chetan Anand's 1946 film Neecha Nagar, written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Hayatullah Ansari, laid the foundation of not just social realism in Hindi cinema, but critiqued how in a society obsessed with profiteering, even drinking water at times becomes undrinkable for the lesser privileged.
Remember what happened when in 2014, the drinking water source for the city of Flint, Michigan was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the cheaper Flint River? Due to insufficient water treatment facilities, lead leached from water pipes into drinking water, exposing over 100,000 residents. Remember Erin Brockovich, the activist and the film that told the story of the contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium in the southern California town of Hinkley?
The point we are trying to make is that cinema when it tells us the stories of conglomerates and ambition, cannot often move away from the human cost of profiteering.
This is Seetal and in this Moneycontrol Deep Dive, we will try and present an overview of how Hindi cinema has told similar stories starting with of course the path-breaking Neecha Nagar which became the first Indian film to gain recognition at Cannes after it shared the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (Best Film) award at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946. It's the only Indian film to be ever awarded a Palme d'Or.
A socialist mindset
Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, the writer of this film, in particular, was a visionary who in post-independence India, foresaw a yawning gap between the rich and the poor, ambition and innocence. He also wrote Raj Kapoor's Shri 420 where a simpleton gets sucked into the morass of an unethical business in Mumbai and becomes a pawn in a Ponzi scheme that devastates the poor by promising them permanent homes at just Rs. 100.
Guru Dutt's 1957 classic Pyasa written by Abrar Alvi critiques the commercial impulses of the publishing industry where a living poet is pronounced dead and his work appropriated by a greedy publisher. A similar theme was explored in Ek Doctor Ki Maut by Tapan Sinha in 1990 where a doctor who discovers a vaccine for leprosy finds himself being targetted only because there are now many powerful people after the appropriation of his work.
Paigham, a 1959 film produced and directed by S. S. Vasan, anticipated tensions between industrialists and workers. The same theme was also explored in BR Chopra's 1957 hit Naya Daur where writers Akhtar Mirza and Kamil Rashid told the story of a community of tonga drivers affected by rapid mechanisation. BR Chopra, whose studio emblem included two labourers, produced another film on the same theme, Mazdoor in 1993 as did Yash Chopra whose Kala Patthar advocated the nationalisation of mismanaged coal mines that exploited workers without any regards for their well-being or safety.
Even earlier came 1969's Aadmi Aur Insaan, a film produced by B. R. Chopra and directed by Yash Chopra that told the story of corruption in the construction lobby and the death of a judge investigating the rot.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Satyakam in 1969 heartbreakingly narrated how an idealistic engineer is unable to conform to the corruption in the system and in the end dies penniless, with only his ideals intact. His 1973 film Namak Haram also dwelled upon the cold-blooded tactics of an industrialist to break up the unity of the workers union. The politics between the unions was also touched upon in Govind Nihalani's 1983 film Aaghat.
Kundan Shah's 1983 cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was a scathing comment on the unscrupulousness in politics and the business of media and real estate.
Amid all this, was a beam of light and hope. A film as unique as Manthan in 1976, where Shyam Benegal, inspired by the pioneering milk cooperative movement of Verghese Kurien, engaged Vijay Tendulkar to write a stirring take on the White Revolution of India. The film was entirely crowdfunded by 500,000 farmers who donated Rs. 2 each to the project.
When business got personal
For most part though, Hindi cinema has used business as a narrative tool to tell stories of vendetta and personal rivalries. Yash Chopra created dramatic tension in 1979's Trishul by pitting an established builder against his upstart, illegitimate son who breaks every rule in the book to run his father's business to the ground.
Possibly the best film of this genre was Kalyug, Shyam Benegal's 1981 retelling of the epic Mahabharat which depicted an archetypal conflict between rival business houses.
1983's family weepie Avtaar uses the entrepreneurial success of a retired technician to avenge the humiliation he suffers at the hands of his self-absorbed children.
Madhur Bhandarkar's Corporate was as subtle as a sledgehammer as it told the story of how brands are built sometimes at the expense of those who helped build them.
Films like Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year in 2009, Band Baaja Baraat in 2010, and Basu Chatterjee's forgotten seventies' gem Manzil have celebrated the ambitious but cash-strapped, starry-eyed Indian middle class while Ashutosh Gowariker 2004 film Swades, explored how development has passed by rural India and how a little bit of initiative can transform lives at the grassroots.
Mani Ratnam's Guru was, of course, an unapologetic tribute to capitalist ambition.
In 2009, the Marathi biopic Harishchandrachi Factory told the story of pioneer Dadasaheb Phalke who put everything he had in the making of India's first feature film, 'Raja Harishchandra'.
Films like Bas Itna Sa Khwab Hai, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman and Yes Boss have revisited themes earlier explored by Raj Kapoor and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas about how far an individual should go to achieve success while Prakash Jha's Rajneeti and Aarakshan have tried to address the irony of corrupt practices in politics and education, the two sectors that must remain above reproach for the existence of a progressive and open-minded nation.
1959's Satta Bazaar and the recent Bazaar starring Saif Ali Khan have played around with the vagaries of the stock market to tell gripping stories.
And of course, numerous films have dealt with the nexus between business, politics and the underworld including Yash Chopra's Deewar and Ram Gopal Varma's Company.
Corporate team building lessons
It goes without saying that not every film needs to be about business to give corporate wisdom and so key dialogues, scenes and life lessons from films like Iqbal, Chak De India, 3 -Idiots and Lagaan have been used in boardrooms for team building exercises.Indian films have by and large not told hardcore business-centric stories but we are getting there. What we have done though is that in every decade, we have reflected through cinema, the mood of the nation. And the storytelling continues though the storytellers have changed.