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Last year, for the first time ever, Hindi film was comprehensively outclassed by streaming TV. And Scam 1992 (on Sony Liv), which told the story of Harshad Mehta in granular detail, was the breakthrough series. It followed his rise from a lowly stockbroker to a messiah who controlled the fate of the market, painting Mehta as simultaneously arrogant and ambitious, irrepressible and charismatic, leaping from risk to risk without a care for failure. It was the most compelling portrait yet of an entrepreneur on Indian screens.

In the black-and-white era, as well as the first two decades of colour cinema in India, film characters with an entrepreneurial spirit were rare. There were practical reasons for this. In the post-independence years, it was difficult for young people to strike out on their own. When the hero in a 1950s or 60s film ran a business—or ran from it, like Shammi Kapoor in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964)—it was usually family-owned. Business wasn’t seen as a very reputable line to go into. Businessmen were staple villains in Hindi cinema for over half a century, in a variety of avatars: the lascivious seth, the bandgala-wearing businessman with a double life, the cigar-smoking smuggler, the corrupt builder or contractor.

A still from Pad Man
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A still from Pad Man

One of the first full-fledged entrepreneurs, albeit a social entrepreneur, was seen in Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, starring Girish Karnad as the official trying to organize farmers in Gujarat into a cooperative. The 1976 film adapted the story of Amul and Verghese Kurien, the man responsible for Operation Flood. Though it has a top-tier Parallel Cinema cast and crew, Manthan today seems a bit too earnest and enamoured of its selfless hero. The most remarkable thing is a title at the start of the opening credits: “500,000 farmers of Gujarat present". Half a million cooperative members donated 2 each, making this the first crowd-funded film in India.

In Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), Amitabh Bachchan grows a construction business from scratch, though only to take revenge on wealthy magnate Sanjeev Kumar, whose illegitimate son he is. What with Bachchan beating up goons single-handedly, it’s difficult to see his character as an entrepreneur. The film isn’t concerned with the ins and outs of doing business—unlike Basu Chatterjee’s Manzil, which arrived a year later. It starred Bachchan as a very different kind of striver, a man of limited means, just about middle class but with ambitions of the high life.

A still from Rocket Singh
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A still from Rocket Singh

After a few failed ventures, Ajay (Bachchan) starts selling scientific precision instruments, buying them cheap with the help of a wily dealer who represents the old ways of doing business. Ajay’s eternal optimism is that of an entrepreneurial spirit; “Let me strike once," he tells his friend, “after that I’ll be rolling in money." He has some success, but then the equipment quality deteriorates and Ajay is taken to court. His lawyer lays into the new corporate ethos, calling it a “conspiracy to keep monopoly going". This sort of pessimism would run through 1980s Hindi cinema, with businessmen as villains. Even the comedies were about the corruption and reach of Big Business—the crooked contractor Tarneja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) ultimately escapes the investigation of protagonists Vinod and Sudhir, who run a struggling photo studio.

With the economic reforms of the 1990s, Indian cinema changed as well, becoming more aspirationally youthful, more conscious of labels and brands. Rangeela (1995), with its many-hued exuberance and name-checking of Cadbury and Amul and MTV, was the perfect post-liberalization film. Entrepreneurs, however, were still in short supply—the anxieties of the modern workplace figured instead in stories about salaried employees trying to work their way up the ladder, like Shah Rukh Khan in Yes Boss (1997). No longer was corporate success anathema for Hindi film.

A still from Scam 1992
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A still from Scam 1992

With the IT boom of the 2000s and the subsequent startup explosion, the entrepreneur finally started making regular appearances in our cinema. Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), a barely disguised portrait of Dhirubhai Ambani, adapted the greed-is-good ethos of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987) in an Indian context (and sentimentalized it). The film starred Abhishek Bachchan as a young man with limited means and educational qualifications but boundless ambition. He starts dealing in polyester, then manufacturing it. Soon, through a mixture of smarts, ruthlessness and manipulation, he establishes an empire. Guru isn’t a particularly effective film—Bachchan Jr can’t fill the screen the way the role needs him to, and Ratnam is never as fluent in Hindi cinema as he is in Tamil. But the Indian reverence for success at all costs, whatever the moral compunctions, spoke to the times.

A still from Guru
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A still from Guru

If Guru was an ode to the ruthless capitalist as hero, two other films released around the same time looked at business creation from a different lens. In Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), Harpreet (Ranbir Kapoor) starts his own rebel startup while still an employee of an established computer service firm. He soon attracts other disgruntled employees whose talents aren’t being appreciated. Jaideep Sahni’s witty script skewers the mercilessness of modern corporates, while also remaining clear-eyed about the many obstacles a heart-on-sleeve venture like Harpreet’s would have to overcome to even compete.

One year later, in Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baaja Baaraat, two youngsters not yet out of college, Bittu (Ranveer Singh) and Shruti (Anushka Sharma), start a wedding planning venture in Delhi. They undercut their rivals not by compromising on quality but by figuring out what their clients want and can afford. Though Shruti tells Bittu that he shouldn’t expect them to be more than friends, attraction builds between the two and threatens to ruin their growing business.

Rocket Singh and Band Baaja Baarat are cut from the same cloth—and not just because both are produced by Yash Raj Films. The startup frenzy had kicked off by this time, and the films capture that early excitement and desire to rewrite the rules of the game. Both films argue success will come from going small, local, personal. The protagonists in both films start off in traditional corporate setups but find them soulless and inattentive to the consumers’ needs. In both films, it’s the softer emotions that get them into trouble—Harpreet’s moral compass, Bittu and Shruti’s feelings for each other. The films are a reminder of the heady days of the startup boom, when everything centred around people—“your colleagues, your customers", in Harpreet’s words.

In the decade past, it has become common to see youngsters in films starting ventures of their own. Happily, a fair number of these characters are women. Sonali Cable (2014) had Rhea Chakraborty running a small business supplying cable TV to her Mumbai neighbourhood. In Dil Dhadakhne Do (2015), Priyanka Chopra runs a successful travel portal. And in Piku (2015), both Deepika Padukone and Irrfan Khan run their own businesses: a design firm and a taxi service.

Social entrepreneurship has continued to be a popular trope—the scientist protagonists of Swades (2004) and 3 Idiots (2009) opt to use their talents to give back to society. Today, the mantle has been taken up by Akshay Kumar in films like Pad Man (2018); even his space programme film, Mission Mangal (2019), has a rebel startup feel to it. Kumar’s films have notably dovetailed with the BJP government’s schemes, as did the make-in-India story Sui Dhaga (2018), in which Anushka Sharma and Varun Dhawan start a small-scale clothing business.

In 2015, TVF produced a five-episode series called Pitchers, about four friends who quit their jobs to found a startup. None of the actors was famous, the production was a bare-bones one, but the show became a massive viral hit. This success would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. It showed how quickly and thoroughly the language of the entrepreneur had seeped into the public consciousness via film and TV.

Today, we encounter countless popups and startups and small businesses as part of our daily lives, which is reflected in the cinema we consume. Business is no longer a dirty word. And entrepreneurship, in films as in life, is no longer a pipe dream.

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