Bollywood narratives and the colour of money

timely tales:Films in the ’50s and ’60s , such as Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420, were testimony to the optimism held out by socialism as well as its dwindling.— photo: special arrangement  

In the opportunistic world of masala movies, someone has, with amazing alacrity, already dubbed a South Indian film with the title Black Money — A Surgical Strike . And while the smartass title clearly has nothing to do with the content, the mention of kala dhan , a staple of much-earlier Bollywood movies, set nostalgia bells ringing in my mind.

Anyone who’s followed Bollywood knows the tropes like the back of her hand — evil zamindar s and money-lenders counting wads of cash and cheating illiterate peasants; psychedelically dressed and blonde-bewigged smugglers and black marketers downing Vat 69 and laughing evilly; seth s surreptitiously taking out notes from the safe concealed behind the idol in the pooja room; politicians buying public servants with suitcases of cash. The villain in Hindi cinema shifted professions with the decades but the chief villain remained money — until the first breeze of economic liberalisation switched its role to that of hero.

Poetry, love or money

There was a time when mainstream Bollywood displayed an almost pathological obsession with money in its film titles, narratives and songs. In every love story worth its salt, money was the Berlin Wall; and paisa ya pyar the preferred binary. The rich girl’s father would routinely tell the hero that his monthly salary wouldn’t even pay for his daughter’s petrol/clothes/make-up — after which, if he was really eager to get rid of him, would offer him a blank cheque in return for vamoosing. (The hero, on his part, would rebuff it indignantly.) I can’t remember the name but there was a film in which Rajesh Khanna, to the audience’s possible horror, accepted the cheque and pen — but then wrote the name of his beloved on it and sang a triumphantly righteous song after.

Populist songs cursing money abounded. A reproachful Jeetendra singing Chandi ki deewar na todi, pyar bhara dil tod diya/Ek dhanwan ki beti ne nirdhan ka daaman chhod diya to, of all people, Aparna Sen; Aruna Irani, in the course of a song, rueing Kyon ki main hoon ek gareeb/Besahara aur badnaseeb when accused of stealing at the house of a rich friend. As the years progressed, melancholy gave way to cocky — Rajesh Khanna, when asked Yaar dildaar tujhe kaisa chahiye/Pyar chahiye ki paisa chahiye, pragmatically replied that he wanted both. Rishi Kapoor pranced around a stage energetically singing Paisa yeh paisa, nahin koi aisa ; and of course Mehmood warbled the timeless The whole thing is that ki bhaiyya, sabse bada rupaiya.

But along with the banal lyrics were those that were outstanding in their deep empathy for the socially and economically marginalised. Recall Sahir Ludhianvi’s moving lines Insaanon ki izzat jab jhoothe sikkon mein na toli jaayegi/Woh subah kabhi to aayegi ; or Prem Dhawan’s nod to Marx that went Haq dooje da maar maar ke, ban de log ameer/Main ainu kehnda chori, duniya kehndi taqdeer in the rollicking bhangra in Jaagte Raho. Even the very mainstream Anand Bakshi once posited Zindagi par sab ka ek sa haq hai, sab tasleem karenge/Saari khushiyaan, saare dard baraabar hum taqseem karenge ; while Prem Dhawan’s Kaali raat in Upkar has a line that is absolutely unforgettable: Jis desh ka bachpan bhookha ho, phir uski jawaani kya hogi?

Mirroring political climes

These songs and others like them, written over the 1950s and ’60s, were a reflection of the poverty crisis that plagued the country then (and still does but film-makers couldn’t care less now). Indeed, Bollywood’s stance on money has always mirrored the political trajectory and economic philosophy of the government of the time. A decade into independence, movies reflected the values of Nehru’s Fabian socialism — profit was a cuss word, the villains were exploitative zamindar s and money-lenders and the protagonists were always poor and honorable though money could make them slip momentarily. The films that emerged from socially committed mainstream film-makers/writers of the time like Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor-K A Abbas and B R Chopra ( Do Bigha Zameen, Awara, Shri 420, Naya Daur ) were testimony to both the new optimism held out by socialism as well as its dwindling. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power, this socialism, already tainted by corruption, had lost some of its sheen.

It was in Mrs. Gandhi’s time that black money born of graft became the new villain in movies — apart from the burlesque smugglers and businessmen who began to populate screenplays and randomly exchange suitcases in shady hotels, back stories of contaminated money began to explode on screen. (Paradoxical, given that the film industry itself was awash with black money, especially during Mrs. Gandhi’s punishing tax regime.) Businessmen with pious names like Seth Dharamdas, hiding under the façade of charitable deeds, were unmasked while the honest common man vented his disillusionment at the gargantuan and inescapable corruption all around ( Satyakaam ). Interestingly, it was around this time that the protagonist of many a film like Deewar , in an ostensible gesture of defiance, crossed the line of honesty himself — perhaps the first step towards the normalisation of any kind of big money, no questions asked, a few years later.

The lustre of wealth

The big turnaround came in the 1990s, a couple of years after economic liberalisation. Money now ceased to have any colour — it just was, in gleaming abundance in the lavish houses and designer lifestyles of film protagonists. Mainstream Hindi cinema’s characters had always lived the good life — recall those swanky cars and palatial houses of earlier decades — but there were also the chawls and hovels of the poor, the less wealthy lover living in modest dwellings, and possibly a plot point about the rich-poor divide or the uncovering of the tainted money of the villain. The ’90s and millennium films of the Juhu-Parle clique (as Anurag Kashyap once called the affluent scions of film families in his more splenetic days) had no such preoccupations. Everyone was upper-class and moneyed in films like Hum Saath Saath Hain , Dil Toh Paagal Hai, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, Dil Chahta Hai, Dil Dhadakne Do down to the recent Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The poor and middle class simply vanished from mainstream cinema — perhaps also because wealth was finally kosher and the poor were no longer part of the discourse in a post-socialist government.

Now, after decades, the demonetisation drama and Narendra Modi’s thundering public denouncements have suddenly brought black money as an object of contempt back to the centre stage. But mainstream Bollywood, which has long outgrown its kaala dhanda gore log narratives, is unlikely to take cognisance again.

The writer is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 5:13:56 PM |

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