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Black Pearl and the spectre of unemployment

Two iconic Bollywood movies of the 1970s bring home the alarming effect joblessness has on the citizens of the country

Uttaran Das Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Gol Maal, Amol Palekar, Utpal Dutt
A scene from Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Gol Maal.

On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister took on the critics of his economic policies – led by senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader – and used his powerful rhetoric and selective culling of data to undermine the criticism. “Some people enjoy spreading negativity. They get better sleep when they do so,” he said of those who had repeatedly highlighted the slowdown of economic growth to 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of this fiscal year – the lowest in three years. Experts who looked at the PM’s data acknowledged that it was all correct, they were critical of how it had been culled. “The problem arises when we compare it with the growth potential. We had targeted 8 per cent growth and are getting 5.7 per cent growth,” said Pronab Sen, former chairman of the National Statistical Commission, to The Telegraph.

While the PM highlighted the growth in various sectors, he failed to address the alarming growth of in the country, both in traditional and new segments. Consolidated data is hardly available on this, but the Indian Express has put collated data from different sectors over the past few quarters, which registered a steady decline in gross domestic product growth. “Textile to capital goods, banking to IT, start-ups to energy, the economy’s downward spiral is leaving a trail of job losses,” per it. (“From textiles to I-T: Wave of job losses hits new and old economy”, October 4, 2017). Resuming from my column last week, where I had looked at Satyajit Ray’s and Jana Aranya, and the effect the loss and lack of jobs has on young men – and women – this week, I shall look at two iconic interview scenes from movies of the 1970s.

The first scene is from Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975): Quite early in the film, we find Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) with his mother (the ever-suffering Nirupa Roy) praying at a temple. Ravi tells his mother: “Either you don’t pray seriously for me, or your God doesn’t take you seriously. That’s why I haven’t got a job yet.” His mother replies: “Perhaps He is looking for a good job for you.” Ravi jokes: “Next time, tell Him, I’m happy even with one that pays Rs 200-250 a month.” With great economy, it is revealed that Ravi has been looking for jobs for some time, doing the rounds of the employment exchanges and offices, without any success. Such a condition would have not been unfamiliar to contemporary audiences: lack of jobs, a and widespread corruption had led to massive anti-government movements all over the county. was released in January; the Emergency would be declared a few months later.

Unlike his maladjusted brother, Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), an uneducated dock labourer, Ravi wants a white-collar job. In a rehearsal interview with his girlfriend, Veera (Neetu Singh), he reveals how he gets nervous at interviews. At the real interview, too, a careful shot reveals his hidden fingers, moving like the antennae of an insect, expressing his nervousness. But, he succeeds in impressing the interviewer, who, having examined his certificates, tells him: “Humey iss job ke liye aap jaise smart ladke ki hi zaroorat thi (We needed a smart guy like you for this job).” But before an offer is made to him, the interviewer gets a call from the general manager of the company, who recommends his own brother-in-law for the job. Devastated at yet another failure, he tells the interviewer: “My file has degrees, certificates, but no recommendation letter. While leaving the office, he tells the next candidate if he doesn’t have any contacts among the managers of the company, he is only wasting his time here.

We meet this unnamed interviewer yet again, a little later at another job interview at a clothes showroom. This time, Ravi manages to get the job of a salesman; quite evidently it is a less attractive opportunity than the previous one, but can beggars be choosers? However, even as he is about to accept the offer, in comes the other man and reveals that he did not even have money for a bus ticket, and consequently got late for the job. Taking pity on a fellow sufferer, Ravi pretends that he doesn’t want a job that pays so little (Rs 350 a month). “This world is like a third-class compartment,” he tells this unnamed character. “If I sat down, you would keep standing.” An argument could be made that this existential condition of lack of jobs is what leads Ravi to become a police officer – and into conflict with his brother, and the eventual tragedy of the narrative.

The conditions getting a job are turned somewhat on their head in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal, released only four years after In it, Ram Prasad Sharma (Amol Palekar) is also a young man looking for a job. Unlike Ravi, Sharma has a degree in accountancy, which probably gives him an edge over the former – but not too much. However, he has a Doctor Mama who comes to his aid. This character is played by David, who as Jai Arjun Singh argues in his book, The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, is the sutradhaar figure in many of Mukherjee’s films. He reveals to Sharma the secrets and idiosyncrasies of Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt), the proprietor of the company in which Palekar’s character is seeking a job (“He is man of strong likes and dislikes.”) – his love of Indian culture, his opinion that young people should concentrate on work and not sports and music, and his ridiculous obsession with the moustache. Bhavani Shankar also hates nepotism: “He should never get to know that we are related,” Doctor Mama warns Sharma.

Sharma’s only qualification for the job is his moustache. Well, he is also a good accountant – but he loves sports and is also a talented singer. With the help of David and Deven Verma – another regular – he stages a natak of being the idealistic, traditional, unfashionable Ram Prasad Sharma. Mukherjee shows us interviews of two candidates before Sharma: The first one disqualifies himself by telling Bhavani Shankar that he is the nephew of one of his friend and by his over enthusiasm for sports. (“I am writing a book on Indian cricketers.”) The second candidate loses out with his overenthusiasm for Carnatic music. A shrewd Sharma pretends ignorance when asked about the Black Pearl: “I thought pearls were only white.” On being told it refers to Pele, the footballer, he even pretends to mishear it as Rele, an economist. Having won over Bhavani Shankar’s heart, he is offered a salary of Rs 850 – a princely sum.

Being a comedy, Gol Maal’s interview scene, with all its exaggerations, is funny. It’s an inside joke between the director and the audience, who can see Sharma’s playacting and know the eventual outcome of this interview. Yet consider the questions Bhavani Shankar puts to Sharma: “Who is Sunny Gavaskar?”; “Tell me about Black Pearl”. To my mind, these seem very like “What is the weight of the moon?” in For anyone else, such landmines would have only resulted in tragedy, an extension of their – not everyone has a Doctor Mama or Deven to negotiate the treacherous landscape of contracting jobs and many seekers.  

First Published: Fri, October 06 2017. 13:29 IST