In Mahesh Bhatt’s Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), actor Aamir Khan plays Rahul Malhotra, a garment exporter, teased and wooed in equal measure by his woman factory employees. In both gender equality and professional change, the movie overturned stereotypes of cinematic iconography in Bollywood.
To get an idea of the journey, travel four decades back. In 1953, Balraj Sahni played the role of Shambu Mahato, a famine-stricken farmer trying in vain to get back a mortgaged parcel of land in Do Bigha Zameen directed by Bimal Roy.
The contrast between the two protagonists is symbolic of India’s journey — from an impoverished post-colonial economy creaking under many burdens to a liberalised democracy trying to face a brave new world of opportunities.
Bollywood cinema, as popular art often does, reflects the times it lives in and lives through. The Amitabh Bachchan-starred Angry Young Man era of the 1970s reflected the spirit of the Emergency days and the tyranny of a half-urbanised economy plagued by shortages, unemployment and injustice.
After a fiscally profligate 1980s that led to a balance of payments crisis, in the 1990s, we find the optimism of the economic reforms unleashed by finance minister Manmohan Singh under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao reflected in the movies, songs and popular culture.
By 1997, the leading icon of the Hindi cinema was not the Angry Young Man but a Clever Romantic played by Shah Rukh Khan. In Yes, Boss, by Aziz Mirza, SRK plays an ambitious corporate executive going that extra mile to please his boss. Here is an opportunistic corporate yuppie. His girlfriend, played by Juhi Chawla, is a perfect match. She is an aspiring model.
And the hero mouths Javed Akhtar’s lyrics that willy-nilly became an anthem for India’s economic globalisation:
Jo bhi chaahoon vo main paoon
Zindagi mein jeet jaoon
Chaand taare tod laoon
Saari duniya par main chhaoon
Bas itna sa khwaab hai
Bas itna sa khwaab hai
(Let me get whatever I desire/ Let me win in this life; Let me grab the moon and stars/Let me sweep the world; That is all I dream of)
Two years later, in 1999, Infosys became the first Indian firm to list on the technology-heavy Nasdaq exchange and turned as iconic as SRK in tapping economic opportunities.
SRK’s screen name in Yes, Boss is Rahul (same as Aamir’s in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke). ‘Rahul’ has emerged as the GenX screen icon – urban, global, clever, pragmatic and ambitious but in an easygoing way. Shah Rukh is called Rahul in no less than 15 movies.
In Subhash Ghai’s Yaadein (2001), Hrithik Roshan, though the son of a tycoon, is an internet entrepreneur, and we know something has changed in India.
If more proof was needed, it came in Dil Chahta Hai. Released later the same year, it reflected male bonding with a free spiritedness in a travel-meets-self-discovery flick. The three lead characters are on different quests with adventurous spirits that symbolise a global attitude. Their cultural baggage is light.
Mahato still haunts
This is the same industry that gave us a struggling Nargis in Mother India (1957). Indebted rural farmers continue to commit suicide well into 21st century — a rude reminder that Shambu Mahato and Mother India are still real. But, what the post-reform movies show is that economic growth and prosperity, even in islands, are large enough to fire the imagination of the world’s most frenetic film industry and shape popular culture.
Mera Gaon Mera Desh
And, it is not as if reforms didn’t change rural India. Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) takes us through decades of tumult in a suburb of the Bihar mining town of Dhanbad, taking in its sweep the nationalisation of coal mines and the emergence of rugged private steel traders and transport operators.
India, the land of Buddha, Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, whose austere ways shaped values, decidedly became more materialistic after reforms started.
The title of the 2006 blockbuster Apna Sapna Money Money (All I dream is money) says it all.
Saas Bahu Aur Sensex released two years later is the story of a young woman who works in a call centre, with a single mother who watches CNBC and invests in stocks. The market economy increasingly finds its voice in Bollywood.
After weathering a financial crisis that hit the world in 2008, the market economy trundles on. India copes with the ups and downs of a new world order in which globalisation is a tale that increasingly sounds like the title of Karan Johar’s 2001 saga of a business family — Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Joy, Sometimes Sorrow).