Time to read my lips

Time to read my lips

Of past imperfect

Time to read my lips

Among the stereotypes of India that have come back to us from the west is that we are a spiritual country, and that Hindi cinema is essentially escapist. The stereotypes have something in common in so far as spirituality is seen as a turning away from the world, a form of escapism. Seen this way, it is no surprise that our popular cinema too tries to avoid reality, for a spiritual people will watch, what else, but cinema that avoids the real world.

We know that this is not true. Money, rather than religion, has always been at the heart of this society. Festivals like Diwali have celebrated the power of money like few festivals in the west. The gambling which precedes the run-up to the main day, and the millions of rupees of firecrackers that go up in flames on D-day, can only seem spiritual to a stubborn romantic.

Bollywood too has never shied away from reality. In fact, it grapples with reality most intimately in its much-derided song and dance sequences, widely held to be the most obvious example of Bollywood escapism.

Wealthy wise

The last five or six years have seen the rise of a new kind of Hindi film song which celebrates the making of a fast buck. The ‘money song’ has been added to Bollywood’s repertoire of situation-specific numbers like the ‘monsoon song’, and the ‘item song’. These loud brash numbers blaring out of car and cell phone radios, and nightclubs across India’s cities, underscore the birth of a generation which unabashedly worships the power of money.

There is a hint of desperation in these songs, a sense of  “Gimme money, no matter what”. Instead of blind faith in destiny and rebirth, there is the sense that money has to be made right here right now because the present is all we have. If Hindi film lyrics are any indicator of the way we are, then the desire for money and materialistic success is now legit.

Wealth was never flaunted in India the way it is now. There were ritualistic displays as on Diwali but not the daily fetishising of consumption which full-fledged capitalism encourages. The lyrics of the 50s, like those of Guru Dutt’s 1957 film Pyaasa, gave voice to resentment against vulgar displays of wealth; they sounded a warning against greed, “Ye duniya agar mil be jaye to kya hai.”

When I was growing up in the 80s, there was an innate mistrust of people with too much money. Not that money wasn’t ever the topic of conversation. Middle class aunties discussed their sons’ respective salaries while hanging clothes on washing lines but, even so, intellectual achievement too — which, while not being profitable — was seen as a valid means of acquiring social status.

During socialist times, we learnt to live within our means. The urban middle class shared more or less the same standard of living. We ate the same Kissan jam and Amul cheese, drove the same Bajaj scooters, drank the same Campa Cola, and owned the same Leonard or Kelvinator fridges. Or fathers all drank the same Solan No1 or Blue Riband or Old Monk. Our telephones all looked the same and when somebody got one, they shared it with their neighbours. We watched the same shows on television, from ‘Karamchand’ on Mondays to ‘Chitrahaar’ on Wednesdays to ‘Quiz Time’ on Sundays.

Our films celebrated both, the bittersweet joys and horrors of city life — from crowded buses to beachside dating — and the agricultural revolution in the countryside —“Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle/ Ugle heere moti”.
By the middle of the 80s, India was losing some of the steam it started out with in 1947. Socialist idealism had its limitations; the optimism of being a new nation was beginning to run thin. There was a lack of opportunity in the cities, driving kids to substance abuse. Smack was the drug of choice and the problem stretched nationwide from Nizamuddin to Colaba. For the first time, the middle class was affected. The problem was not confined to the urban poor alone.

Initially, Bollywood responded to this bleak landscape with nonsense. It is generally believed that the quality of lyrics nosedived in this period but they were only holding up a mirror to society: there was little to be optimistic about; culturally our cities were barren. Absurdity ruled until things got serious. Kids were dying in alleyways behind five star hotels; jobs were few and far between. Doordarshan was broadcasting an endless stream of anti-drug serials and public service announcements.

Bollywood finally took note of urban alienation. The alienation of the 80s was different from that of the 50s. Guru Dutt’s alienation, for example, arose from a yearning for the fruits of economic progress to be distributed more equitably. The alienation of the 80s came from a cul de sac moment in modern Indian history. The song ‘So Gaya Ye Jahaan’ from Tezaab (1988), about a group of Bombay smackheads, captured this moment with chilling resonance, “So gaya/ Ye jahaan/ So gaya asmaan/ So gayee hai sari manzile/ So gaya hai rasta.”  ‘Papa Kehte Hain’ from QSQT (1988) spoke about a college graduate whose friends have made it through medical and engineering colleges but who is clueless about his own future, “Magar ye to/ Koi na jaane/ Ki meri manzil hai kahaan.”
Things began to change from the mid-90s. With liberalization came prosperity, a sense of hope. Smack was no longer the scourge it was. A sign of this change is the line of dialogue from Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. When asked how he’s going to make it in the world with bad marks and a bad degree, Rocket replies with an impish smile, “S.A.L.E.S”.

Rocket Singh... shoots into the sky carrying new India’s payload and successfully puts into orbit an unusual, timely and very contemporary film about computers, capitalism and corporate ethics.

Jaideep Sahni, the writer, sets the movie firmly in the post-liberalisation India of gigantic showrooms selling home appliances and computers. This is a country where a small elite coming out of top management schools calls the shots, while the rest, armed with little else but measly B.Com degrees, have to slog it from the bottom up.

A knowledge of English, in this scenario, is not as much the asset it used to be. Harpreet Singh Bedi alias Rocket is comfortably bi-lingual but is still excluded from the elite. As he says, “I don’t have the money to do a private MBA from a foreign university.” At the same time, it’s not easy getting into Indian institutes — there are too few seats and too many people. These usually go to those with brains or those who are well-connected. Falling between stools, Harpreet, despite being very bright, has to begin from scratch.

Ranbir Kapoor, who plays Harpreet, puts in an understated performance, concentrating on the nuances of the character, and avoiding completely the histrionics we associate with our heroes. Considering the theme of the film — an innocent in a savage world — comparisons are inevitable with his grandfather, Raj Kapoor, who also tackled similar themes.

But Shimit Amin is a finer director, and Ranbir Kapoor, a better actor than Raj Kapoor. This is a tight film that avoids the sentimental claptrap which Kapoor senior was prone to. Instead of creating an image of fake idealized innocence, Amin and Sahni throw their man into the hurly burly of the real world. Harpreet doesn’t emerge unscathed — he loses his innocence but also retains it. He learns a new trick or two, he makes compromises, yet manages to hold his own and gain respect from skeptical fellow-workers.

He doesn’t turn away from the system a la Guru Dutt, nor does he want to destroy it like in the films of the 80s which had names like Paap Ko Jala Kar Raakh Kar Doonga. In modern India, there is still a tremendous waste of human potential but opportunities are not lacking. When Rocket and his cronies lose their jobs, their lives are not plunged into hopeless despair. Rocket, for example, finds himself working in a dead-end job in a Chroma showroom — it’s creatively stifling but still enables him to put food on the table.

Show me the money

The biggest sign of this change is the ‘money song’ which has become somewhat of a fixture in our movies. Sample this from the latest Akshay Kumar starrer De Dana Dan, “Kyon paisa paisa karti hain/ Kyon paise par tu marti hai”; or this from Kaminey, “Dil dildaara mera teli ka tel/ Kaudi kaudi paisa paisa/ Paise ka khel”; or this from Johnny Gaddar (2007), “Cash meri aankhon mein/ Cash meri saason mein”. Bluffmaster’s (2005) “Sabse Bada Rupaiya” makes a fleeting reference to “Ulta phirta dinners in Hotel Sun ‘n’ Sand” before going on to conclude cynically, “Na biwi na bachcha na baap bada na maiyan/ The whole thing is that ke bhaiya/ Sabse bada rupaiya.” And ‘Paisa Paisa’ from Apna Sapna Money Honey (2006) lays down the manifesto of a generation, “If you want my pyaar, mere dildaar/ Show me your credit card/ Gimme lots of checks/ Suno sensex/ Gimme yer body guard/ Money show me the money…/ If you want romance/ Nahi koi chance/ Unless you wanna spend/ Emotion' s out/Money is in/ Yehi hai latest trend.”

Far from being escapist and fantasy-laden, Bollywood lyrics have consistently kept pace with India’s changing economy. They have been a reliable indicator of our changing values, as reliable as any pop song can be. They have celebrated self-sufficiency, cocked a snook at wealth, documented the despondency of a generation ravaged by drugs, embraced the sense of hope that came with economic liberalization and capitalism.

There are also signs, for the first time, of a new rebellion against money. ‘Pappu Can’t Dance Saala’ from Jaane Tu... pokes fun at new rich Indians who flaunt their Guccis and foreign MBAs. And a new underground song by Imaad Shah, currently doing the rounds on the Internet, brags that less is more, “Apun ka style/ Na Reliance na mobile/ Na Airtel/ Na BPL/ Na IPL.” Now that certainly has shades of Pyaasa. Maybe, just maybe, the wheel is beginning to turn again.

(The writer’is the author of ‘Eunuch Park’. He is presently working on a book on young India called ‘The Butterfly Generation’.)