Friday, March 01, 2013

Crorepatis, kal aur aaj

[From my Business Standard Weekend column – did this little theme-fitting piece to go with their “Billionaire’s Club” edition]

Old Hindi cinema had an impressive line-up of billionaires (but let’s adjust for inflation and allow them to be mere crorepatis). For the purposes of a short column, it is useful to divide them into two broad categories: the bad guys and the good guys. The former were the ones who eventually became the Bond-style villains of 1970s movies, living in dens with spiky walls, quicksand pits, dancing sylphs and floors that would part to reveal a shark tank into which an inefficient minion or the hero’s beleaguered father could be dipped. The other types of crorepatis were decent – or relatively decent – people. They wore their wealth lightly, called their grown-up daughters “baby” and were good to the less privileged in the indulgent way that people who have never known true hardship can afford to be. In Yash Chopra’s Waqt, Shashi Kapoor as the poor driver walks into a high-society party to ask his employer if he can use the car to take his mother to the hospital. The boss, played by Rehman, looks solicitous, says “haan, le jaao, le jaao” and gets back to his socialising. (And this despite the fact that he isn’t a good guy in the overall scheme of things. He has bigger fish to fry, but he can be nice at a micro-level.)

Some things were common to both sets of wealthy people: the mansions of the Good could be just as vulgarly opulent as the villains’ lairs (minus the shark tanks). In Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish, an underappreciated classic of commercial Hindi cinema, Kishan (Vinod Khanna) takes up smuggling in his off-hours. This was the get-rich-quick profession of the time, but what is perplexing is that he already lives (with his honest police-inspector dad) in an eye-poppingly fancy house. In a confrontation where the father pulls out his gun and shoots about randomly while the wayward son ducks behind a sofa, one worries more for the well-being of the velvety furniture than for any of the human characters.

In fact, there are hundreds of films where the decor interfered with the playing out of real emotion (not always to the movie’s detriment). Take the scene in the Kapoor family’s ego project about generational conflict, Kal, Aaj aur Kal, where Prithviraj Kapoor as the “yesterday” and Randhir Kapoor as the “tomorrow” have their big spat while Raj Kapoor watches despairingly. It’s a tragic moment in its conception, and various hyper-dramatic things are happening at the level of the music, the camerawork and the facial expressions, but who notices? You gape instead at the interior design – the enormous bifurcated staircase, the endless halls – and feel that it would be worth not getting along with anyone in your family if you could only live in a house like this.

It was surprising then that some of these films featured youngsters trying to break out of their stifling ancestral wealth. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s enjoyable but ideologically muddled Asli-Naqli, Dev Anand is a spoilt rich boy who sulks when his grandfather ticks him off, and then sets out to discover How the Other Half Lives. His adventures – which unfold in an idealised basti populated by poor people who are basically good-natured even when they are beating their wives – are shown as fun and games; there is no real sense of danger or sacrifice, no accrual of responsibility. The story amounts to an idealising of both rich and poor, with the suggestion that they are each more or less content in their respective places, and that they can role-play once in a while, when things get dull. (Role-playing would become an important theme in Mukherjee’s cinema, but this is a shallow manifestation of it.)

Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young Vijay would not have approved of such idealising. In the 1970s, Vijay became a symbol for the wronged man working his way up in the world by operating outside the law if necessary: his progression from footpath boy to millionaire is strikingly summed up in the shot where he looks up at a skyscraper his mother once toiled on, and which he has now bought for her. But such were the moral imperatives of this cinema that even while you sympathised with the character at an individual level, the film couldn’t let him go unpunished. The great conceit was that if you have to become a billionaire, do it the “honest” way or else.

Today things are more cynical and perhaps more pragmatic, with many recent films depicting a social landscape where everything is up for grabs – Special 26, for instance, ends with the conmen played by Akshay Kumar and Anupam Kher settling down in the Middle East, having got away with their heists, and the film encourages us to cheer for them. The message is clear: it is okay to be crooked if you do it with panache; the ends justify the means. “Be a billionaire. Accha hai.” The genteel villains of the 1970s might have found it a little distasteful.


  1. Jay, There is some interesting potential to explore in greater detail in the physical surroundings in Hindi cinema and emotions/conflicts that play out within them.

  2. Mayank: true. A much more comprehensive piece (and one that hopefully wasn't dashed off in barely two hours!) can be done on this and related subjects.

  3. In the 1970s, Vijay became a symbol for the wronged man working his way up in the world by operating outside the law if necessary

    The changing trends of Indian cinema always make more sense when juxtaposed with the prevailing political climate.

    The poor in Raj Kapoor's cinema or in Asli Naqli lack the jealousy and spite and anger that characterizes 70s Salim Javed films because the poor back then did believe in the system! They didn't deny that the rich had "earned" their wealth and the doors to upward mobility was not denied to them either.

    But the 60s/70s were a pretty bad time for India. Even the glimmers of upward mobility which did exist in the British Raj or in the 50s disappeared by the 70s. Govt nationalized several key industries and increasingly became a patron of a handful of business houses. The poor lost faith in the possibilities of upward mobility and became angry and spiteful!

    That narrative of the angry young man does not resonate today because the poor/lower middle class today do see hope on the horizon. Millions have graduated to the "upper" middle class over the past 15 years. And the families who earn say 1-2 lacs per annum today expect their kids to do a lot better. The anger has evaporated and people by and large have renewed faith in hard work and enterprise and the causal link between these two attributes and affluence.

  4. One of the most cynical comments came in one of the most uplifting movies of its time - Anand.

    Recall Amitabh's character monologue about the slum-dwellers of Mumbai - "Ek mara naheen, ki doosra paida ho gayaa marne ko" - one of the most telling statements on quality of life amidst poverty (when we were about 40 crs in number).

    To me it is as iconic as Mohnish Behl's lines, but have not seen anybody dwell on the that.

    The movie (Anand) also shifts tone and mood after the initial montage on Bombay slums and goes on to dwell about living life king-size.

  5. Jai,

    In Parvarish, I don't think Vinod Khanna's character is driven to crime by money. He mistakenly assumed that he is the biological son of dacoit-turned-smuggler Madan Puri. It was to aid his criminal dad and spite Shammi Kapoor who he felt had taken him away from his "real" dad and punished him for being naughty as a kid.

  6. Anon: the Parvarish reference was a jokey one, intended to make the point that in some cases (mainly when a film wanted to show off a grand setting) even "honest" working-class people were shown living in mansions. And yes, I know the film's story - wrote a longer post about it (which I've linked to in this one).