Did Bollywood write the script for the Indian economic miracle?
Exactly why did India’s economic miracle occur? Could the answer lie in hit Bollywood films? An academic from the USA has recently published a study which statistically analysed the most popular ﬁlms in India each year since 1955, and found that characters of rich merchants have changed dramatically, from being portrayed as villains, to now being heroes.
Nimish Adhia from Manhattanville College, New York, argues that the shift in who were villains and heroes in popular cinema, is linked to a profound change in Indian society. It was this fundamental transformation in attitude to commerce, in the decade before liberalisation of the Indian economy, which might explain India becoming the economic powerhouse it is today.
Adhia contends that previously there was a deep Indian antipathy toward ‘trade’ with deep roots in the caste system. Religious scholars (Brahmans) were at the top of the caste hierarchy, followed by soldiers (the Kshatriyas), merchants (the Baniyas) and peasants (the Shudras).
Adhia argues Bollywood mirrors the psyche of Indians – with the cinema hall as mixture of temple, psychiatric clinic, even parliament and a court of law. The Indian ﬁlm industry is the world’s most proliﬁc, producing over 1000 ﬁlms year with a daily global viewership of over 12 million—second only to that of Hollywood.
The ﬁlms chosen for this study entitled ‘The role of ideological change in India’s economic liberalization’, are all winners of The Filmfare Best Film award – given to one Hindi ﬁlm every year. These awards have equal prestige and popularity in Hindi Cinema as the Oscars do in Hollywood. The Best Film is chosen though viewer polls and a panel of experts, so reﬂecting a mixture of elite and popular approval.
A total of 52 ﬁlms, one for each year from 1954 to 2007 (there were no awards in 1987 and 1988) were analysed in the study published in the ‘The Journal of Socio-Economics’.
Adhia contends that the dilemma of duty is recurrent in early Indian ﬁlms. In the climax of Mother India (1959) a mother takes a stand on her wayward son. In Deewar (Barrier, 1976), a police ofﬁcer ﬁnds he must cuff his beloved older brother. In Upkaar (Obligation, 1968), two brothers debate tilling their family farm or moving for better opportunities.
How these dilemmas are resolved, contends Adhia, offers an insight into the prevalent values of the times.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, he argues the plot conundrums in Indian cinema invariably resolve in favour of duty. The mother in Mother India (1956) shoots and kills her son as he attempts to kidnap a woman—an action that would have been shameful for the village. “I am the mother of the entire village,” she says as she picks up the gun. She is shown to lament his death for the rest of her life, but the ﬁlm idealises her as “Mother India.”
These ﬁlms hold up duty, sacriﬁce, and deference to the interests of the larger community as heroic.
But then, starting with Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1986), a spate of ﬁlms arrive that celebrate the assertion of one’s desire. This usually takes the form of falling in love.
The young lovers in the big hit Qayamat se Qayamat tak (Doomsday to Doomsday, 1988) elope and endure enormous hardships because of their families’ opposition. Similarly in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (The Ganges has been Sullied, 1985), Maine Pyaar Kiya (I am in Love, 1989), Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar ke (We are on the path of love, 1993) opposition to the romance arises from narrow concerns of class, status and language. But in the end the lovers prevail.
In India of 1980s the pursuit of individual wants, needs and desires was gaining legitimacy.
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (The One Who Wins is Alexander The Great, 1994) Sanju (Aamit Khan)—who is initially the black sheep of his family—gains respect by winning a cycling competition. The race, argues Adhia, embodies individual effort, competition, and self-discipline.
While characters of earlier ﬁlms had attained heroism through sacriﬁce to the interests of family, village or nation, now the path to heroism lies in individual achievement.
Around the same time, the Best Film award winning ﬁlms begin to show businessmen as extraordinarily moral. For example, Ashok Mehra (Raj Babbar) in Ghayal (Wounded, 1990), who is the older brother of the ﬁlm’s hero, dies while trying to protect his business from being used as a cover for anti-social activities. Maine Pyaar Kiya (I have loved, 1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (Who am I to you, 1994) both revolve around families headed by benevolent self-made industrialist patriarchs.
In contrast to the rich of the films from the 1950s, who were unfailingly wicked, the wealthy are now solicitous and magnanimous.
In the plots of the ﬁlms from the 1980s and 1990s, problems do not arise from actions related to the pursuit of wealth, but extraneous factors such as untimely deaths and envious outsiders. Wealth has become unproblematic.
To measure systematically the portrayal of the rich and the businessmen Nimish Adhia analysed all male characters integral to the storylines of the ﬁlms. Female characters are excluded because they are rarely shown to pursuing a vocation, let alone running a business.
The analysis found the number of heroes as businessmen in popular Indian cinema has increased dramatically recently. The percentage of businessmen characters that are portrayed positively has increased, with an up surge in the number of ﬁlms toward the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s in which the occupation of the hero is that of a trader or business owner.
In the 1960’s not a single winner of the Filmfare Best Film award portrayed a hero who was a businessman, but by the 1990’s there are 11 heroes who are businessmen and only 3 heroes who aren’t, meaning almost 80% of heroes by the 1990’s were now businessmen. By the 1990s as well there were 25 portrayals of businessmen in a positive manner and only 4 portrayals were negative, while in the 1970’s there were twice as many negative portrayals of businessmen, in these films analysed, as there were positive depictions.
Adhia argues the economy boomed after these significant changes in Indian cinema. Adhia believes films reflect the cultural changes that were occurring in the society, which anticipate the coming economic revolution.
But some will look at Adhia’s data and come to a different conclusion about the plot. Did Indian cinema kick start the shift or just reflect it? Is it even possible the script for the Indian economy was written by Bollywood?