Opinion | Bollywood’s long road to crazy rich Indians
The Indian film industry has had a shifting attitude towards wealth—and, in fact, some broader themes in economic development
A film about two New York professors attending a wedding in Singapore is not exactly raw material for a successful opening weekend in the US—and eager anticipation in other parts of the world. The unexpected success at the box office is one thing. The initial viewer response to Crazy Rich Asians has also sparked off a lot of sociological commentary on the ways of the super-rich. Some of these issues also resonate in India.
The story is as follows. Rachel Chu is an economics professor, whose boyfriend Nick Young teaches history at the same university. Rachel realizes that Nick comes from a fabulously rich family only when she accompanies him back to Singapore, his hometown, and gets sucked into the over-the-top lifestyle of the Asian elite.
This is a far cry from the mystical East portrayed in films such as Eat Pray Love. James Crabtree of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore sees the new film as a parable on rising inequality in Asia.
There are some lessons for us as well. The Indian film industry has had a shifting attitude towards wealth and, in fact, some broader themes in economic development. Think of the way the bus company is portrayed as the villain that has arrived to put honest buggy drivers out of business in the 1957 film, Naya Daur. And then there is the astonishing argument made a decade later in Upkar—that India suffers from food shortages because of farmers who have abandoned the land for the lure of cities.
Both these arguments fly in the face of modern development, thinking about investing in modern technology as well as providing urban employment opportunities for those trying to escape the overpopulated agriculture sector. However, these two films reflected the neo-Gandhian cultural sensibility that was dominant in India at the time.
It is no surprise that the businessman was inevitably portrayed in a negative light during these socialist decades, as an exploiter whom the hero takes on till the good side wins. Economist Nimish Adhia has shown in his careful content analysis over the decades that very few Hindi films in the 1950s and 1960s had businessmen as heroes. That changed in the next two decades, as businessmen began to be shown as men of integrity.
In fact, Adhia has argued that the films of the latter decades helped build the legitimacy of wealth creation in the public mind, and thus made it easier for economic reformers to free enterprises from government control after 1991.
Two films in the post-reforms era are particularly worthy of mention. The first is Dil Chahta Hai, which journalist Shekhar Gupta has argued is a landmark because it is perhaps the first Hindi film in which the main characters are comfortable with their wealth.
The second noteworthy film is Guru, which economist Alex Tabarrok described in the Marginal Revolution blog as “one of the most pro-free market movies ever made and perhaps the best”. Tabarrok continues: “The movie is powerful not because it opposes virtue and corruption, but because it opposes two ideas of virtue. Is it virtuous to follow the law when the law itself is corrupt? Other artists have explored this question when the lawbreaker opposes social injustice, à la Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but what about when the lawbreaker opposes economic injustice? The question the movie asks is a classic question from Ayn Rand, how can an honest businessman live in a corrupt world? The theme becomes clear in the climax, a trial in which Guru, à la Howard Roark, puts society on trial.”
The road from Shree 420 to Guru has been a long one. The question now worth asking: Is India ready for its Crazy Rich Asians moment, when wealth is seen as the fruit of crony capitalism rather than innovative enterprise? This at a time when the legitimacy of Indian businesses has been hurt by the likes of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and several others, who have defaulted on their bank loans.
The average businessman is thankfully not yet an object of derision in Indian public discourse, but Hindi films in the coming years will offer us some important cultural clues about what people think about crazy rich Indians.
Does Indian cinema accurately reflect the way Indian society looks at wealth and the rich? Tell us at email@example.com