Hindi film characters are busy falling in love, or fighting for justice, or serving the nation. When did you see one worry about a job?
Mukkabaaz brings to life the desperation evident in the thousands of postgraduates who vie for lowly government jobs
Growing up, when the Hindi film was especially close to my heart, my mother and an array of Bengali relatives warned that I was going to be useless in the real world. “They do nothing; only fall in love and waste time… completely useless people," they said. The Bengali mind is utilitarian. Ten years into a career that has been shaped by the insecurities of the global economy and baffles most of my family (“She gets paid for completely useless writing!"), I realize they had a point about Hindi films and its ideas about work. People rarely worry about jobs (or work) within the bubble that is Bollywood.
Outside the landscape of the mainstream Hindi cinema though, average Indians constantly worry about work. Unemployment in India is at the highest it has been in 45 years—6.1% in 2017-18—according to the government’s own National Sample Survey Office, whose summary findings were reported by Business Standard last week. When was the last time someone in a Hindi film worried about securing a job?
In 2018, there was Mukkabaaz, Anurag Kashyap’s superb story of a boxer from a small town in Uttar Pradesh who fights caste and corruption and dreams of making it to the national team—only because it could lead to a job with the Indian Railways. It brings to life the desperation evident in the thousands of postgraduates who vie for lowly government jobs.
But Mukkabaaz is an outlier, even in Kashyap’s filmography. In his other film in 2018, Manmarziyaan, heroine Taapsee Pannu doesn’t have a job; second hero Vicky Kaushal dabbles in DJ-ing distractedly; and hero Abhishek Bachchan is a banker in London who gets the longest leave known to have been sanctioned in history. In Kashyap’s earlier films, including the fabulous DevD, there is such little job-related activity that I worried about his protagonists’ resumes.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali now deals exclusively in the pre-modern world where there is no question of jobs. Work was determined by birth. Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films (YRF) have never been limited by such practical concerns. Yash Chopra coined the term “glamorous realism" for his cinema—this is the realism where a dance company lives a stylish, five-star lifestyle (Dil Toh Pagal Hai); a career poet lives in a handsome bungalow (Silsila); and a waiter possesses the skillset to be a bomb-disposal expert (Jab Tak Hai Jaan).
YRF made an exception of sorts last year with Sui Dhaaga—the story of a young migrant couple struggling to set up a small sewing unit. It seems to be a propaganda film to plug the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign (make in India is also the film’s subhead). But the search here is not for a job; it is for the identity of a successful entrepreneur. The journey to entrepreneurship is triggered by the humiliation that the heroine feels on behalf of the hero at the treatment his employers mete out to him. It is a search for dignity.
Hindi films are typically a moral project animated by idealistic concerns like love, justice, dignity, and nationalism. Its protagonists are full-time romantics in the service of their ideals or romantic love, usually both. Practical concerns like employment and income are too mundane for their attention.
Hindi cinema of another era
You have to go back to the Hindi films of the 1950s and 70s to see anxieties about jobs and income. Raj Kapoor came to the big city in search of work in Anari and Shree 420; in Awara, he struggled to leave a life of crime to find an honest job. He cultivated the persona of the tramp, based on Charlie Chaplin, representing the rootless migrant in the big city. That decade also saw Do Bigha Zameen—Bimal Roy’s unforgettable story of peasants who sell everything to come to the big city and crumble under the strain of the city. Naya Daur, also in the 50s, spoke of work anxieties differently, in relation to automation. The tonga drivers of a town, led by Dilip Kumar, face a livelihood threat when a local businessman starts a bus service and subsidizes it to push the tonga drivers out of work. Think of the app-based cabs of today—much cheaper and more convenient than local taxis but a workforce bereft of benefits and sleep; except there is no film on them like Naya Daur.
In the 1970s, a number of films such as Deewar, Kaala Patthar and Namak Haraam mentioned trade unions but these films were not about employment as such. They were about the search for justice and belonging, the moral project of Hindi films again. There were a handful of alternative films in this decade, however, such as Dharavi, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, which spoke of the distance between the desires encouraged by the big city and its hard reality. The memorable Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron is about two young photographers who want to set up a photo studio and find themselves sucked into a vortex of power and corruption.
Post liberalization, Peepli Live (2010) offers a very interesting commentary on the state of the economy: as rural distress forces farmers to commit suicide as well as perform suicide as a threat. Journalists and the media, in general, find a succulent story, possibly prizes and promotions too. It presents a disturbing relationship between the rural and urban economies—the media, a powerful section of the urban economy prospers as rural areas wither. If anything, the grouse against this clever film is that it focuses too much on the media, and under-explores the rural angle, leaving it as a subject of pathos only. Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman is a revisiting of Anari, where Shahrukh Khan comes to Bombay, finds a job with the help of his nice, low-income neighbourhood girlfriend, and falls for the sheen of corporate success. But that is all.
Although the economy, and the film industry itself, was fundamentally reshaped by the reforms of 1991, Hindi films have little to say meaningfully about the changes this has brought to work, incomes, and aspirations. What happened was that costumes and choreography became sharper; sets became more elaborate; locations got more international. The Hindi film hero has been upgraded to the non-resident Indian (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) or the affluent businessman (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Hum Aapke Hain Kaun), as if liberalization immediately opened up international work opportunities and improved business outcomes. What business Rahul runs in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or what kind of firm Prem’s family own in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun is mysterious. Sometimes, the heroes do nothing —Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan in Dil Chahta Hai, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan in Kal Ho Naa Ho, Varun Dhawan in the Dulhania franchise. Heroines, of course, increasingly don’t have any careers.
Over the past decade and a little more, we have begun to see a lot of the “creative" professional. Ranveer Singh is a standup comic in Paris (no less) in Befikre, Alia Bhatt is a cinematographer in Dear Zindagi, Ranbir Kapoor has played photographer in more than one film (he is a singer in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil), and Fawad Khan is a writer in Kapoor & Sons—to name just a few. Creative work is often freelance, not very well-paid or regularly paid. But these films omit any references to these problems, largely by making the characters so wealthy that money problems do not feature. In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Kapoor flies a private airplane. Creative work is often the province of the privileged, but this kind of idyllic portrayal is likely because the makers of these films have little clue about frequent financial worries.
Only Delhi Belly has a realistic take on creative jobs, though it does not address job anxieties at all. All three heroes are what you can call creatives—Imran Khan is a reporter, Kunal Roy Kapoor is a photographer, and Vir Das a cartoonist. Fittingly, given media salaries, they share a miserable apartment in a spotty, illegal colony in Delhi.
Arguably, the closest Hindi films come to commenting on unemployment is through the image of the gangster. The Bombay underworld genre, featuring glamourous representations of dons and gangs, references the crisis that arose from the closure of mills in Mumbai and the resulting unemployment of workers. A film like Satya addresses this directly—the eponymous character comes to Mumbai in search of work and gets sucked into the underworld. But most films are indirect. In the rest of Ram Gopal Varma’s underworld filmography and later films like Raees, we simply see the dons as sexy crime lords, not as the products of an economy and social system that offers no legitimate opportunities for some groups.
The movie is the message
Ultimately, what movies show matter simply because it animates the national conversation. In an era where governments have repeatedly tried to ignore or suppress unflattering job numbers, popular culture offers one forum to acknowledge the festering concerns of India’s teeming job seekers. And films in languages beyond Hindi have tried to do just that. In the recent Bengali blockbuster Bhooter Bhabishyat, an ad filmmaker is unable to make his feature film because he has no money. Ashchorjyo Prodeep is the story of upper-middle-class anxieties—of tall buildings in gated colonies, and loans, and a family where the wife works as a prostitute to finance the lifestyle she seeks.
In Tamil and Malayalam cinema, even creative professionals have real concerns, like Maheshinte Prathikaaram which is the coming-of-age story of a photographer. And taxi drivers sometimes have meaty roles too. In Annayum Rasoolum, Malayalam actor Fahadh Faasil plays a Muslim taxi driver who is in love with a Christian girl in Vypin, an island in the vicinity of Kochi. The persistent problem of higher unemployment among the educated finds a mention in the Tamil flick Velaiilla Pattadhari, which is about an unemployed civil engineer, while Pizza is a horror mystery about the curious predicaments of a pizza delivery boy.
Even in Bollywood, Bengali filmmakers sometimes sneak in practical concerns. Shoojit Sircar’s October is set in a work-training programme, and while the focus of the film is tightly on the medical crisis at its heart, it makes significant comments about career pressures. A class full of trainee hotel managers are baffled by the commitment shown by Dhawan’s character to a severely injured classmate, which results in him abandoning a traineeship that could lead to a guaranteed job. Then, in the final minutes of the film is one of October’s most remarked upon scenes: when a character dies and her brother wonders if he should go to the tuition centre that day, their mother says, “yes, of course." Because the prospect of cracking just that one exam, which leads to that elusive dream job and a slightly better future animates much of India. That matters more than anything else.
Sohini Chattopadhyay is an independent writer and journalist based in Kolkata