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HomeNational InterestAh, the sweet smell of poverty!

Ah, the sweet smell of poverty!

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Forget what Dil Chahta Hai, we’re wired to rubbish the rich

WHY is Dil Chahta Hai, the latest box office hit, not your usual Bollywood formula film? Certainly not because it has a great storyline — its plot is thinner than Bangaru Laxman and Jaya Jaitly’s excuses. And certainly not because it does not rely on a star cast — it has three of the hottest male stars chasing three of the hottest females, even leaving the odd top model or veejay jilted on the sidelines. It also certainly doesn’t spread any socially relevant message.

Now when was the last time you saw a Hindi film that celebrated riches, high life, luxury so unapologetically? In the usual formula, one of the three friends (Aamir Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Saif Ali Khan) would have hailed from a poor family, brought up by widowed mother. But his would have been the one home with happiness and his mother’s the shoulder his friends cried on for she would have been the fount of all wisdom, generosity and a genuinely contented life. The poor guy’s girl, then, would have had to be the richest with evil, unhappy parents, and she would have redeemed herself by renouncing her riches for love and moving into his chawl.

Not in this case. Here all of them and their women are rich. They (including the women) drink champagne and wine. They happily ditch old boy/girlfriends and hitch on to new ones. They flaunt the symbols of affluence: cellphones, resort holidays in Goa, 51-inch flat-screen televisions. They ride a Merc now and a Lexus then, drink beer from the bottle while driving and yet use seat-belts. When was the last time you saw a Hindi film that was so relaxed, so non-judgemental, so in-your-face about being rich?

If popular cinema mirrors the mind of our society, are we seeing the first stirrings of a post-reform urban India that is not embarrassed about being wealthy, where the rich are not wretched by implication and the poor, similarly, spiritually so well endowed? Too early to jump to that conclusion, perhaps, but there is no harm thinking that thought because unless that change comes about in the traditional Indian view of wealth and its creators, we have no real future except to become a colony of China.

The very famous and equally outrageous American writer, P.J. O’Rourke, raises this very important question in his latest, Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics: Why do some places prosper and thrive while the others just suck? (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.)

It can’t be the brains, he says, because ‘‘no part of the world is dumber than Beverly Hills and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they are boiling stones for soup.’’ He similarly dismisses the other likely factors. Education is ruled out, because how could America then be so rich when its class four school students ‘‘know what a condom is but aren’t sure what is 9×7’’. If culture made the difference, America would have been a basket case. And if civilisation made people rich, the Chinese would have been ruling us all for ages. Even if the key was natural resources, Africa would have been richer than Scandinavia.

His conclusion, after travelling and studying economic systems around the world, is that places that respect wealth, its creators, enterprise and the free markets which enable them to do so, and are willing to pay the costs of the free market while savouring its benefits, become rich. Capitalism by itself is no solution. Or Albania wouldn’t have been the poorest nation in Europe. How well do we, in India, pass that test?

We do very poorly, actually, because as Dhirubhai Ambani pointed out so bluntly in his acceptance speech at ‘The Economic Times Businessman of the Year’ award night two weeks ago, not only do we not respect creators of wealth, we hold them in suspicion and contempt. Whatever scams the Ambanis may have been involved in, they have built real wealth, and our system cannot stomach that. It has worked, therefore, over a decade, to find what they have done wrong, what laws they have twisted, which levers they have turned to build these world-class assets. How has a first generation Indian enterprise come so far without its owners going to jail even once? The problem with our country, unfortunately, is not that it has Dhirubhai Ambani. The real tragedy is, even the decade of reform has failed to produce a couple more Dhirubhais. If that had happened, not only would we have looked a better economy, even this Dhirubhai would have been kept on a leash, and on his toes, by real competition.

The ugly rich, the thieving capitalist, the ostentatious pig are our stereotypes that precede the fake Nehru-Gandhi socialism when the only abuse worse than that was to be called a stooge of the Birla-Tatas (read capitalists). This suspicion of enterprise, the repudiation of competition, enterprise, an individual’s quest for riches go far back in our past.

Was the caste system, then, Manu’s idea of a kind of licence-quota raj? Nehru’s socialism said, thou shall only produce this many cars of this engine-capacity and make and no more of this, or nothing else. Manu said you were born with these skills, with these genes and whatever your forefathers left you so thou shall endeavour to do no more, at least not differently. So the rich, whether financially or intellectually, would remain so through generations while those with skills would remain poor. The net effect was an institutionalised barrier between skills, intellect, enterprise and virility for all time to come. With the rich now guaranteed their riches for ever, without threat or competition, it was so cynically convenient to glorify the poor as daridranarayan, the humble image of God.

This may be pop-sociology but don’t forget the way the upper crust glorifies and celebrates poverty. There is a very Indian, Kautilya Marg-Carmichael Road poverty chic which may live the lifestyle of the dudes of Dil Chahta Hai but constantly rails at the free market threat to the poor. This set loves poverty, the poor are so sexy, and a guilt trip packs such sadistic delights. Its principle is straightforward: poverty is my birthright, but you shall have it.

There has to be something so terribly wrong with a society which even when it celebrates its most successful creators of wealth, is more proud of their spartan lifestyle than their riches. What else do endless newspaper articles, television programmes extolling Narayanamurthy’s middle-class lifestyle tell you? How he eats with his staff, travels economy class, hires taxis in Mumbai, cleans his own toilet, gives himself a small salary, and so on. We celebrate his asceticism and not his wealth. If he gets his fame through such self-denial, why did he build such a marvellous enterprise and wealth anyway? How would his lifestyle inspire your children or mine to slog and become creators of wealth? A Bill Gates with his mansions and jets might. But Narayanamurthy? I’d rather cram up the scriptures and become a new-age guru or a tele-evangelist on some Aastha kind of channel instead.

The Time magazine this week carried a hair-raising cover story on how China’s new companies will drive those of the other Asian nations bankrupt. Chances are they will start with India, and it won’t help even if we pulled out of the WTO — the Chinese are not even in it yet. This is the price we would inevitably pay for our poverty obsession, for our masochistic Hindu view of wealth: the rich are ugly and unhappy, the poor are content and virtuous syndrome. But Dil Chahta Hai shows you that at least our cinema could now be kicking this hypocrisy? If Bollywood truly holds a mirror to our society, that change could begin to reflect there as well, howsoever faintly. Who knows?

This was originally published on 1 September 2001.

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  1. Frankly I don’t like The Print , but this is the best article I have read in past few years. Very transparent n highlight the problem as is .

    Please publish more such and be more rational in your journalism. Many more like me who are looking for insightful content will start following you

  2. DCH , i think, was a movie known for the new mustache style, which many youngsters copied. The relationship of older and younger male [in a mainstream movie] was also a big highlight of this movie. about dirubhai comment:i can only say that-we indians have a socialist in us, and after all these years –it is still alive and comes out……….

  3. When will Bwood stop stereotyping all mandir priests and pandits as chors and makkars…Shekar Gupta do u have the guts to ask filmmakers of Mulk to make one such movie…

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