Debonair isn’t quite adequate to describe a tuxedo-clad Raj Kapoor responding to a dazzling Nadira who has just finished a slow waltz, daring him not to steal backward glances. Our hero ups the tempo and leads the attending glitterati in an ode to change. A short while later, the far more pensive and dishevelled (faux) Prince of Piplinagar answers his true love Nargis’ plaintive plea from a nearby slum “Wahinse door se hi, tu bhi yeh kah de sahi (even from afar, say this) ” with “Maine dil tujh ko diya (my heart belongs to you)”.
That vignette from the 1955 classic Shree 420 epitomises the dominant Indian popular cultural reaction to worldly riches even six decades on, despite the fact that 65 Indians are now dollar billionaires. Most of them are on nobody’s hate list, either. The wealthy or their lifestyles, though, have attracted little curiosity. We have not had equivalents of American TV shows such as The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or The Fabulous Life of… Our gossip pages are populated largely by film, sports and media stars, not the Big Cheeses of business.
Perhaps the movers and shakers of corporate India lead lives more private or less sensational — most likely both — for the Muse to target them. Our cultural milieu does not possess the likes of either Ayn Rand’s granite-solid mammon-acolyte John Galt (Atlas Shrugged), or the tragically enigmatic Charles Foster Kane of Orson Wells’ magnum opus, Citizen Kane, not even F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. We have neither pulp fiction by the likes of Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, Jeffrey Archer and lately, J S Scot, nor its video counterparts such as Dallas and Dynasty, all with intriguing rich and superrich.
Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007) — a thinly fictionalised life of the Ambani pater familias — is possibly the sole Indian creative work extolling the pursuit of wealth. The leads of Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) were all affluent, but that did not affect their personae. Over 50 years passed before that situation repeated itself in the Akhtar siblings’ films, Farhan’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Zoya’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). Otherwise, the moneyed of our shared imagination always live down to the worst pejorative sense of plutarchy. Their obsessive hedonism and greed — never good for them, Gordon Gekko might well learn — cause their inevitable downfall. Rarely, though, a realisation of the evil of their ways makes them reform.
How family fortunes repress a young person, and only the pure love of a person from the opposite end of the economic spectrum liberates, is a favourite theme of our films. That the Kapoors have been playing such characters for three generations — Shammi in Junglee (1961), Rishi in Bobby (1973) and Ranbir in Wake up Sid (2009) — all great hits — goes to show how hardy this perennial is. A variant is the Taming of the Shrew — Raj Kapoor’s reporter teaches humility to spoilt brat Nargis (with Papa Gope’s hearty approval) in Chori Chori (1959) as does Aamir Khan to Pooja Bhatt in its 1991 remake, Dil Hai ki Maanta Nahi. The haughty Sridevi succumbs to the plebian Jeetendra (Himmatwala, 1983) and Anil Kapoor (Laadla, 1994). These films were rages in their southern avatars as well. Wealth corrupts and absolute wealth corrupts absolutely is a pan-India belief.
Greed is not good is a theme popular on the small screen as well. The more bejewelled the saas, the more of a gorgon she is to her bahu. Even in other formats, the rich are unattractive and their wealth brings them little happiness. Ram Kapoor’s fortune causes him all sorts of problems in Bade Achchhe Lagate Hain, while his wife Priya from decidedly humbler stock is resolutely sensible. Nothing, not even murder, is beneath Anushka Sarkar of Kya Huaa Teraa Waada in her pursuit of filthy lucre, while the far poorer Mona Singh triumphs over all tribulations because she is motivated solely by the love of her family. Both these have been staples of primetime TV, which shows that our perception of the wealthy has changed but little.
That intellectual legacy continues into the modern era globally. Thorstein Veblen at the turn of the nineteenth century scathingly denounced the leisure classes. Through most of the next century, as capitalism gained sway over the world despite the rise and eventual fall of communism, consumerism remained a bad word. The new century has brought in its wake the crisis of excesses exemplified by the subprime bubble. Grand remunerations and lifestyles of bankers and financial intermediaries, highlighting extreme inequalities, have attracted general disapprobation, be it in real life as marked by the occupy movement, or in reel life, as in The Wolf of Wall Street.
We may secretly crave to build a 27-storey mansion for ourselves, or gift a jetliner to our spouses. But somewhere in the subconscious, scruples prick. Our doubts surface as a justification: we may be poorer, but we are also purer. So we applaud the aam aadmi crusade against pomp and ceremony, but still derive vicarious pleasure from learning how much the newly-minted Indian-origin CEOs of Fortune 500 companies make a year.
The last word surely belongs to the vintage Beatles, who sang 50 years ago, “Tell me that you want the kind of things/That money just can’t buy/I don’t care too much for money/Money can’t buy me love.”