I remember a school principal lecturing my husband and me during school admissions many years ago. She asked how many schools we had applied in. Three, we said, as we frowned on the parallel attempts of another teacher to make our kid jump through some mental hoops. Shocked, she said that most others applied to 10 or 12.
Not happy with the information shops in the city, we had decided on home schooling if we didn’t get one of the gentler schools. This was not the way the world functioned for the principal of that school and hence the lecture on arrogant parents.
Luckily, our kid got into an alternative school called Mirambika that fixed first-year goals (at age four-plus) at personal hygiene, balance and climbing trees. Happiness. So when we watched 3 Idiots recently, it resonated deeply. But the movie is more than a mirror of a belief system. The reaction to the movie in rupees crore tells me that India has hit another inflection point.
While cinema showcases the narrative of a country and society, there is always that iconic movie which will document an inflection point of a transient nation. After the big political changeover of the 1940s, the dominant theme of transition has been economic.
In the 1950s, even as the nation struggled to make sense of its freedom and the accompanying poverty, lack of jobs, scarcities, cinema gave us a fig leaf. Of a past that was rich and wonderful. Of having morals that compensated for being desperately poor. Think Manoj Kumar. Heroes were jingoistic, abjectly poor, but morally superior. Money was the villain and the rich were all hoarders. Think Jeevan.
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Up until the 1990s, movies spoke about an India riddled with scarcities (the empty food pots), hoarding (smirking villains with their warehouses full of grain and sugar, the starving masses), smuggling (Ajit and his cohorts always brought in gold biscuits) and elusive jobs (the hero always rejected since he did not have a sifarishi chitthi, or letter of recommendation).
The last part of the 1980s and first half of the 1990s saw a shift in the underlying economic reality. The stifling closed economy and society began to see drafts of openness. Hope that lurked in dark corners began to show up in unexpected places. And money began to lose the villain status.
Reflecting a shift in the economy, the post-1990s cinema moved very quickly to reflect the new India. The value judgement about money began to blur, the hero stopped starving, became middle class.
The villain was now a drug peddler, a policeman, a don, a bureaucrat and the politician, and the reason for his evil was sometimes money, not always. The backdrop moved from a sense of hopelessness to more control over lives. The epochal movie to document this shift was Dil Chahta Hai (DCH) in 2001. “The apology was gone from having money. This is also an Indian life, was the message,” said film critic Shubhra Gupta. Yes, poverty existed, but so did the 100-million-strong emerging middle class. DCH was their collective voice saying: “Yes, I am.”
So while urban mass affluent India began to take money in its stride, the access to money still remained tightly linked to higher education, which led to aspirational jobs. Conventional lenses showed both to be in short supply. Middle India moved up the scarcity value chain. From empty food bins in kitchens and thin wallets to a scarcity of opportunity in higher education, to which were linked the well-paying jobs.
The desire shifted from getting any job to getting a job that was “steady” and well-paid. The scarce seat in the Indian Institute of Technology or the medical school was hard fought for. And once got, jealously guarded. As was the job that came after the aspirational postgraduate degree. Hence the ubiquitous low-level politicking in most offices. For lower middle-class urban informal sector, small town India (Bunty and Babli took to crime due to lack of opportunity faced by two bright young people) and Bharat, education and a “settled” job with either the government or a large firm remained tickets out of a bleak future. This reduced the luxury of errors. To have a personal choice about your own career was naïve. “This is not how it is,” (aise nahin hota) is something every young person would have heard when he/she tried to do something different.
But some parts of the country now lived another reality. It began in the infotech sector and spread to the financial. Work that was global in nature told the workers of another way of looking at education. Jobs morphed “work”. The pressure of an education system out of sync with the burgeoning opportunity of a resurgent nation got heavier and heavier to bear. Two movies in the last year of the first decade of a new millennium, Rocket Singh Salesman of the year and 3 Idiots, are again in the epochal space. They offer a new way to deal with the two scarcities that still tie us down. Of education and work. “Study and do what you love to do, money has no choice but to follow,” a dialogue from 3 Idiots, I predict, will be the mantra for the next decade.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy. She is consulting editor with Mint and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org