Inside Job, the Oscar winning film on the 2008 economic meltdown, is a documentary that is as good as any thriller you might have seen. The basic story is familiar by now, but the film makes it more real and accessible to a wider and uninitiated audience. It is perhaps one of the few films that have been able to capture the abstract concept of “risk” in such an interesting and enlightening manner.
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Tracing the origins of the crisis to the deregulation of US markets and financial services in the 1980s, Inside Job succeeds in establishing the fact that banks had a vested interest in selling insanely risky financial products, even as they lavishly insured themselves against the failure of these. It shows also how the high priests of academia played ball in justifying and supporting the reckless deregulation of finance as well as the growth of innovative financial products.
Inside Job doesn’t pretend to have the solutions to these problems. Nor does it sermonize. The only feeling that one has on watching the film is that what happened in 2008 could happen anytime. Indeed, we are far closer to a meltdown than most analysts and economists, who look at data and make predictions, think.
The film follows a long list of incisive and interesting market movies from the American film industry, from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987, which portrayed the world of American equities as one ruled by corrupt traders and amoral money managers.
A similar situation in the commodity futures market was dealt with, albeit differently, in Trading Places (1983). Comic and light-hearted yet deeply profound, this film at one level reveals the absurdity of the markets. At another, it shows how complete control in the hands of a few individuals makes everything else, including the system, redundant.
Similarly, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) portrays the pressures of selling in overpriced markets resulting in real estate scams. Corporate battles come alive in Pirates of Silicon Valley (2000). The list is not just long, it is also varied.
In India, this connection between the world of business and that of films seems to be missing. In spite of the fact that the Mumbai film industry is huge in its own right, it doesn’t seem to care much about business as subject matter. One would have thought that being so intertwined socially and spatially—they operate from the same city, Mumbai—film producers would be better equipped to represent the enormous impact of business, for good or ill, on how we live, think and feel.
The only exception in recent times has been Guru (2007). But then that was less about business than a dramatic life story of a significant corporate leader who created a new Indian business culture.
Historically, the Mumbai film consciousness seems to have been more influenced by the larger national system. Hence films such as Do Bigha Zamin (1953), arguably our version of The Grapes of Wrath, or Damul (1985). Indeed, while feudalism was once the underlying theme in many Indian films, capitalism has never been represented with the same intensity and feeling. This is despite—or perhaps because of—business’ burgeoning cultural influence. Mumbai hasn’t gone much beyond the rich corporate father or the illegitimate son becoming his father’s rival. Many films do have elements of business, money, loyalty, trust and organization, but most of these serve as background material rather than central themes. Perhaps the latter needs more insight and creativity.
Yet it is remarkable that the economic stagnation of the 1970s or the boom of the late 1980s and 1990s never got represented in Hindi films. A negative representation of economic processes during a slowdown, or an exaltation of moneymaking and markets during booms, is expected. But that hasn’t happened in India. The cinematic representation of business in movies is almost non-existent.
With new film-makers exploring interesting themes—Peepli [Live] is a good example—one would expect that the economic havoc of the last few years would get to the screen in some intelligent fashion. That’s all the more desirable, because there is no dearth of subject matter in India. The securities scam of 1992, the Bhansali fraud (1996), the K 10 stock manipulations (2002), the Telgi stamp case (2003), and the Satyam scandal (2009) could all be great fodder.
Not only is the magnitude of fraud and evasion in these cases huge, there is also a fair amount of drama and human interest in them: From a lowly insurance agent coming to dominate the equity markets to a travel agent creating a complete end to end chain of counterfeit stamps. It’s time these made it to the silver screen.
Haseeb A. Drabu is an economist, and writes on monetary and macroeconomic matters from the perspective of policy and practice. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org