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Manmohan Singh: The moolah man

Sanjay Suri | Updated on August 31, 2019 Published on August 30, 2019

Cashing in: Manmohanomics was faulted for deepening the divide between elite India and the rest - Kamal Narang   -  The Hindu BusinessLine

The unseen star of ’90s Bollywood is the then finance minister Manmohan Singh

Can we think of Bollywood cinema as moving from a Mahatma Gandhi era into a Manmohan Singh phase? How much socio-economic politics can you take to this fantasyland? But, without doubt, the upheld public ideals are seen to change in much the same way in both society and in cinema with the onset of liberalization. The public debate was all about new ways of looking at and for money.

Wealth was now acknowledged to be good for the individual and for the nation. Wealth had always been good to have, but being wealthy now became the good ideal to have. If you had money, you were moving ahead in life and taking the Indian economy with you. The guilt over the poverty of others evaporated too; it was assumed that the poor would get richer, or at least less poor, as an outcome of your own rising income.

The past began to look like a mistake. Nehru and Gandhi were being edged out together, Nehru first. Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) would come with a reminder of Gandhi’s ways. It was Nehru that dominant thought within the country pushed out more firmly, or simply forgot about more easily. It was his socialism that came to be seen as the problem more than Gandhi’s economic morality. To the extent that those views coincided, cinema was turning away — as India was — from this particular face of Gandhi too.

Manmohan Singh took over as finance minister in 1991 and immediately began to accelerate a process that had in fact begun earlier — that of lifting the government’s weight off private enterprise. Nationally, private push to wealth had long been colliding against the wall of state policy; policy was seen to shackle dreams. Now the state was opening doors to new enterprise. Correspondingly, wealth came to screen too unapologetically.

It was, of course, far easier for Bollywood sets to find wealth than it was for the audiences. The average means of the audiences were improving, but the gap between them and the film setting was clearly widening. Audiences were dreaming of a move from scooter to car, not from car to helicopter. But in the mood of the ’90s, wild dreams were still considered properly ‘aspirational’.

Wealth of the Western kind was now coming to India; possessions that Western wealth could buy were now within the reach of the Indian with means. New cars came in, gadgets, branded wear — an expression of style that had earlier taken dollars to buy. The hero, branded poor once, now appeared in nothing but brands. The ones with a good deal more were a fraction of India still, but that fraction announced new possibilities. In any case, this was the fraction that the new Bollywood picked on.

The target audience now was India’s ‘burgeoning middle class’. The expanding middle classes had not burgeoned into a majority. But they were enough in numbers to change the face of Bollywood. They came to dictate the choices presented on screen. Films began to be made primarily, if not exclusively, for them.

We have candid word from such dominant film-makers as Yash Chopra and Karan Johar that such exclusivity — of which exclusion was the other face — was just what cinema set out to achieve. ‘One ticket here sells for eight pounds,’ Yash Chopra said on a visit to the UK. That ticket price has since gone up to ten pounds in places, even twelve, so a thousand rupees a ticket. Multiply that by a few million NRIs in Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf, and it added up to a declared new territory for film distributors, who had so far only divided India into their territories. For the purpose of ticket sales, one NRI had become as good as ten Indians in India, or at least half a dozen. That added up to a large enough audience for a film-maker to dish out stories made up of them and not just for them. Of these we suddenly get plenty, with DDLJ being only the most dominant of the lot.

The elite middle class audience within India came to be seen as an extension of the NRI audience. The spending by middle class India at new multiplexes, themselves imported from the world of NRIs, began to similarly outweigh the value of the tickets at the old halls.

Karan Johar said quite plainly over the course of a media chat that the economics of the new cinema led to film production now being aimed at exhibition in the multiplexes. And he said with characteristic candour that he thinks his Hindi script in English. A synonym is implicit between language and money: to think English is to think middle class — upper middle class more than middle class. Manmohanomics was faulted by some for dividing an elite India from the rest more sharply than before. Nowhere did this division become more obvious than in Bollywood.

The new middle class India pushed poverty out of its own mind into the past — never mind what they might see outside the car window. If they were headed to the multiplex in a car with enough money to buy those costly tickets plus the coke and popcorn, it was because they weren’t poor. Before the roll of this dollar Indian, the Gandhi spell disappears. The unseen star of ’90s Bollywood is Manmohan Singh.

 

A Gandhian Affair: India’s Curious Portrayal of Love in Cinema was launched in July

Published on August 30, 2019
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