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Money passes the screen test

Money. It's been a bad word in Indian cinema for a long, long time. And moneyed businessmen? Worse

Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

Veenu Sandhu

How do you humble an egotistical rich man who believes that money can buy everything? Think drastic, like getting him to meet with an accident so that he loses his eyesight completely. And then make him realise that he can't just order a new pair of eyes with all the money he has. Show him that it's only through someone's benevolence that he will see again. That's precisely how the super rich and super-arrogant Rajesh Khanna is chastened in the contemptuously titled 1981 film Dhanwan.

Money. It's been a bad word in Indian cinema for a long, long time. And moneyed businessmen? Worse. Till the fortunes of India changed post-1991, Indian businessmen were, by and large, condemned to be portrayed as people who made their riches by walking over other people, who couldn't have normal families and who would easily turn their backs on their children, friends and loyalties for the sake of lucre and status. A rich man's child would be a neglected child, like the drunkard son (Amitabh Bachchan) of multi-millionaire industrialist, Amarnath (Pran) in Sharaabi (1984). Or like the perpetually teary-eyed son of Shreeram Lagoo in Do Aur Do Paanch (1980) where the rather annoying father is constantly on the phone talking about deals in London and America. His daughter would be speeding around recklessly in a convertible, almost running over a limping man or sending a vegetable cart flying off the road. He would be the oppressive employer who wouldn't shy away from using even his best friend to crush any rebellion among his employees, like in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Namak Haraam (1973). Okay, that was a left-leaning film about the rise of trade unions and class clashes, but the message was clear: even among two closest friends, the rich one is incapable of thinking beyond profit.

Then there were certain templates in which Bollywood placed the moneyed folks. They'd have done something not quite right in their past to become lakhpatis and crorepatis. In Yash Chopra's Trishul (1978), construction baron Raj Kumar Gupta, played by Sanjeev Kumar, has reached where he has by choosing to marry a wealthy heiress rather than the woman he loved. But justice is finally delivered at the hands of their illegitimate child, played by Amitabh Bachchan. The same template is repeated in Uttar Dakshin (1987), with Jackie Shroff and Rajinikanth pitted against each other as the most implausible step-brothers. With film makers questioning a rich man's means to his wealth, that's how bizarre it got.

But in the last few decades India has changed its attitude to affluence. So has Bollywood's on-reel approach. Indian cinema, which at one time caricaturised and had little respect for the capitalist, is, in the free market regime, celebrating his riches. Lavish lifestyles are no longer frowned upon. Post-liberalisation films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) show the rich businessman as a benevolent, self-made man. There are also adulatory portrayals of the super rich, as in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001).

Nimish Adhia, an assistant professor of economics at Manhattanville College in New York, in fact, closely followed the Filmfare Best Film awards over five decades to study the transformation in people's attitudes towards commerce. His study, titled "The role of ideological change in India's economic liberalization", found that the number of lead actors, or the heroes, portrayed as businessmen in mainstream Indian cinema has drastically increased in the recent times.

The Filmfare Best Film awards, as studied by Adhia, tell a story. In the 1960s, for example, not a single lead actor who bagged the Filmfare Best Film award portrayed a businessman. By the 1990s, 11 of the 14 heroes who won the award were enacting the role of businessmen - that's nearly 80 per cent. Adhia also found that by the 1990s, Indian cinema had 25 positive portrayals of businessmen and only four negative portrayals. The picture had reversed since the 1970s. The famous "Mere paas maa hai" dialogue of Deewar (1975) need no longer be an expression of the contrast between two irreconcilable realities.

Bollywood does not grudge its rich businessmen their Lamborghinis, private jets, ostentatious wedding and Swiss romances any more. However, for an art that is supposed to reflect society, Indian cinema is a bit behind time - at least when it comes to terminology. Why else would it still call a businessman who flies in his private plane nothing more than a crorepati?

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First Published: Sat, February 14 2015. 00:04 IST