In the 1990s, as the era of the licence permit raj began to fade, so did the moral odour around the concept of money. Money became not only a legitimate aspiration, but for the first time in independent India, making money or openly aspiring to make money became morally acceptable.
The khadi-clad freedom fighters of the 1940s marched for the tricolour and shunned foreign-made riches. The “bush shirt”-wearing Nehruvians of the 1950s and 1960s, busy with nation-building, scorned money-making as infra-dig. The kurta and chappal-clad Naxals and Angry Young Men of the 1970s and 1980s roared against an unfair establishment which monopolized immoral wealth. Money was still a dirty word then. But in the 1990s was born the materialist Indian, for whom the only revolutions were the revolution of expectation and the revolution of money-making.
Lakshmi had been a shy goddess in the post- independence period. Khadi, charkha and satyagraha were the foundations of our newly acquired freedom. Socialist austerity and an elaborate hypocrisy about wealth underpinned an economy whose “commanding heights” were held firmly in the hands of the leviathan state. Bollywood traditionally depicted business and enterprise as sinister machinations of quasi- criminals. Businessmen were invariably hairy medallion men in white shoes quaffing illicit bottles of Vat 69.
But in the 1990s, Lakshmi leapt out of hiding and took centre stage as society’s new muse. As finance minister Manmohan Singh slashed at the tentacles of the licence raj, the shackles of the mind broke apart too. A study commissioned by Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) in 1997 discovered what O&M called the “Genie” generation or a generation who independently engaged in society. In the survey, 70% of metropolitan youth in the age group 18-28 said making money and being materialistic (not making revolutions or changing society) was their goal in life. In a 1998 Outlook-Mode survey of youth across major metros, a majority said their role model was Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Holy Cash: An artistic interpretation of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, by Atul Dodiya. Courtesy Atul Dodiya and Chemould Prescott Road
Bollywood mirrored the change. The 1994 smash hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was set against the backdrop of an extravagant, flamboyantly wealthy family wedding. Glittering saris and flashy jewellery, fabulously ornate interiors combined with the devotional rituals of a Hindu wedding to consolidate the image of money as aesthetic as well as moral.
The 1995 hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) was similarly set in an ostentatiously affluent yet traditional Indian household where characters were no longer middle class or rural but unapologetically and unabashedly wealthy. DDLJ marked the beginning of films that were no longer shot in the modest hills of Shimla but in flashy locales across Europe. On ski slopes, in tulip gardens and on fashionable high streets. Rich people were now good people. The hero was no longer a dock worker or coolie but a scion of a wealthy family. The heroine was often the daughter of an equally wealthy clan. Role models transformed completely. For the first time the Hindi film hero openly made money, often lived overseas and had a globalized lifestyle.
The Wall Street dream had already gripped the Indian elite in the 1980s, but in 1994 when Kolkata boy and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduate Rajat Gupta was elected the first managing director of McKinsey born outside the US, he became the poster boy of the new culture of “honest” money-making. Gupta came from a middle-class Bengali background, his father was a freedom fighter and his mother a schoolteacher.
His anointing as head honcho at McKinsey signalled a powerful change in the mentality of the Indian middle class. The open pursuit of wealth was no longer considered sinful. Instead it was a duty, almost a new phase of nation-building, to take the India story to newer heights and to shed past hypocrisy about wanting to be rich but keeping it a secret.
For the first time, Indian millionaires began to feature in Forbes lists. The takeover of Silicon Valley by IIT-trained engineers continued apace and the setting up of the business process outsourcing (BPO) and software industry meant that being rich, middle class and Indian were no longer a contradiction in terms.
The pursuit of wealth and success also brought a transformation in how Indians perceived their career goals. Cyrus Broacha went to acting school in New York, studied law for a year, worked in an ad agency before getting his big break as an MTV veejay. Becoming a VJ or RJ would have been unthinkable to professionals of the 1960s and 1970s. But in the 1990s they became legitimate and highly aspirational. The money they offered after all was the sole determinant of success.
The 1990s was also the decade of the big advances in publishing. Vikram Seth received a whopping £250,000 (around Rs 1.8 crore now) for his book A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy sold the UK rights of The God Of Small Things for £150,000. The hype and glamour around these books was due in large part to the money they received and wannabe novelists across India dreamt of similar get-rich-quick novels. Roy quickly became a role model for aspiring writers, not just for the book she wrote, but primarily because of the money she earned.
In the media too, the 1990s saw the advent of sales and marketing departments play an increasingly dominant role in journalism. Newspapers, pioneered by The Times of India, became money-making ventures, determined to boost profits and profitability. The circulation of The Times of India is reported to have touched 1.6 million copies nationwide after it launched its colour supplements like Delhi Times. The circulation of Hindustan Times (published by HT Media Ltd, that also publishes Mint) grew by 50,000 copies in Delhi after the launch of HT City.
“Page 3” was born. Rich, glamorous celebrities whose wedding anniversaries and parties were celebrated through glossy pictures in colour supplements were ambassadors of the new culture of money. After decades of dreary socialist tea parties, conspicuous consumption, lavish parties and beautiful clothes exploded on to our senses with neon-lit force, creating an alliance of beauty, success and power with unembarrassed display of wealth.
In the electronic media, the monopoly of Doordarshan faded and there was the rise of private satellite television. The money revolution on TV would reach its pinnacle in Kaun Banega Crorepati, launched at the end of the decade in 2000. The show became the culmination of the Indian middle-class’ forthright, publicly expressed aspiration for big money.
“I believe in money,” said a character in the 1940s play The Queen and the Rebels by Ugo Betti. It was only in the 1990s that for the first time since independence, the Indian could say the same thing, without guilt or hypocrisy.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org