India Uncut

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Bollywood hails the free market

A version of this piece was published today in today's Wall Street Journal as "Bollywood's New Capitalist Hero." (Subscription link.) It isn't meant to be a review of "Guru", towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? "Guru", the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

"Guru" stars Abhishek Bachchan as Gurukant Desai, a character inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani was that rare tycoon who went from rags to riches during the worst years of India’s license raj, building Reliance Industries, which today is India’s largest private sector company. In the era in which Ambani flourished, the state throttled private enterprise with licenses, regulations and sundry restrictions that had at their core Jawaharlal Nehru’s pithy sentiment: “Profit is a dirty word.” Ambani built an empire in spite of this system, enriching millions of middle-class shareholders in the process, for whom he became a folk hero well before his death in 2002.

Ambani’s means were sometimes controversial, and the film reflects this. Towards the end, Desai is on trial for economic offences that have much to do with import duty and the like. He stands up to make his final statement, and is asked if he is going to speak standing up. In a memorable moment, he thunders, “Do I need a license to stand?”

Desai then evokes the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and implicitly compares Gandhi’s freedom struggle against imperialism to his own struggle with the forces of economic oppression. It is an apt comparison, stated with all the drama and flourish that Bollywood is famous for, but it is almost unbelievable that it is being made in a Hindi film.

In Bollywood, over the ages, one of the template villains has been the businessman. He will look suitably sinister, will alienate his own children, and will either deal in drugs or arms on the side, or spend his time evicting slum dwellers. Anything for profit, especially murder and rape. Most Bollywood businessman villains were classic caricatures of “the evil capitalist,” exploiting the workers and growing rich on their blood and toil. They often freelanced as mafia dons or were crony capitalists, but when the hero raged against their greed, this distinction was lost: business—and the profit motive—were itself painted as twisted, and the rare benevolent businessman stood out starkly as an exception to the rule.

Indeed, Abhishek Bachchan’s father, the screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, himself acted in many films as the angry young man who speaks up for the poor against big business. The senior Bachchan’s best years were in the 1970s, when the Soviets were idolized and America and free enterprise were reviled. Times have changed, and for the first time, Bollywood has acknowledged that change.

Some previous pieces of mine in WSJ: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
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