Abhishek Bachchan is revealed to be the main performer of “money” on Hindi screen. Dressed in a shiny costume (but not shiny enough compared to daddy Amitabh Bachchan’s “ Saara zamana ” whose bulb handles could have electrified a small village), he knocked on “ Sabse bada rupaiyya ” in Bluffmaster ! (2005), a track originally associated with the king of comedy Mehmood of the mid-1970s. He flamboyantly broke the rules in pursuit of wealth in Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007) in what is generally considered one of his best performances that even Ambanis can endorse. Now in his new movie The big bull, which stumbled upon Disney + Hotstar on April 8 and whose reviews are mixed at best, he proclaims, “I’ll be India’s first billionaire.” In it, Bachchan plays the Dalal Street trickster Hemant Shah. Sounds familiar? Perhaps. Hansal Mehta’s recent Web Scam 1992 series had a surprisingly similar plot. Both are inspired by the steep ascent and descent of Harshad Mehta. For viewers young enough to remember the 1990s, there is no need to explain who Mehta was. For the rest, it would suffice to say that he was a charismatic broker who made a murder in Dalal Street with his exploits but was soon made in by his venal ambition. A sort of Gordon Gekko for whom greed was good. Or will we say that greed was God?
“Note ka maalik banne ke liye ussey kamana padhta hai”, prescribed the bad boy of Saif Ali Khan Shakun Kothari in Baazaar (2018). For Emraan Hashmi’s little con artists, the good and the bad are two sides of the same coin (Crook, 2010), giving his many on-screen characters a free pass to overturn the hard rules. of morality in its favor. Even Guru’s own Bachchan Gurukanth Desai defends his unscrupulous practices by invoking Gandhi in the film’s climax. It may have been filmmaker Mani Ratnam’s attempt to achieve some sort of redemptive moment in the public eye by Gordon Gekko / Tony Montana / Godfather. “I’m the audience,” Gurukanth Desai slams in a scene worthy of a whistle. From Kishore Kumar making fun of money as a magic wand in Paisa Hi Paisa (1956) to Akshay Kumar playing with ‘Main baarish kar doon paise ki jo tu ho jaaye meri’ in De Dana Dan (2009) ten years ago, Hindi cinema has come a long way in its relationship with money. Even Shah Rukh Khan of Raees who says, “Ammi jaan kehti thi, koi dhandha chhota nahin hota aur dhandhe se bada koi dharm nahin hota”, is far from the dreamy-eyed Rahul of Yes Boss (1997) who firmly believes that, “Dil ki gali bohot chhoti hoti hai. Usmein ya toh paisa reh sakta hai, ya pyaar. “
Paisa and pyaar are two of Bollywood’s oldest tropes, dating as far back as the wonderfully timeless Shree 420 and Pyaasa. Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 best captures the essence of these twin attractions. It sometimes feels like being pro-poor was not enough for this most enduring Hindi classic. It had to be anti-capitalist. His eponymous hero Raj (Raj Kapoor) is forced to give up his idealism and honesty, which had endeared him to his lover Vidya (Nargis) in the first place, for a life of crime. Or to Maya (Nadira), as the vampire calls her. Kapoor’s tramp receives his first lesson in the heartless nature of a big city when he lands in Bombay. A beggar by the side of the road told him, “People can only hear the tinkling of money here.” The city’s perverse influence corrupts the naive Raj. “Iss duniya mein toh saans lene ke liye bhi paisa chahiye,” he said to Vidya, justifying his position. Raj ends up making amends, only because uncompromising Vidya is the moral force of the film and wouldn’t indulge in his wrongdoing.
In 1950s socialist India, for Raj to be a hero, he had to be redeemed in this way. In Bollywood, the rich have always been the bad guy. In other words, cunning lenders and landlords are now being replaced by billionaires with net worth and corporate empires. Take any number of films from this era and you find “money” to be a problematic business. In Pyaasa, Guru Dutt is a struggling poet in whom the audience immediately places their sympathies while the elite Rehman is the toff who gives the upper class a bad image. The same goes for the Kundan (Jeevan) returning abroad to Naya Daur. Then there’s Dharmendra who plays the humble teacher and novelist Ashok in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (1966). Sharmila Tagore’s Anupama comes from a wealthy family who have a troubled relationship with her father. Ashok is certainly a man without means, but as he reminds his father, “love and sacrifice” compensates for all his deprivation and despair. From Neecha Nagar (1946) and Waqt (1965) to Dulhe Raja (1998) and Dhadkan (2000), this rich classic girl-boy candy has had a lasting impact on Hindi audiences. One of the main objections of Mughal-E-Azam, the ultimate magnum opus of Hindi cinema, is that the heroine (Madhubala) is a commoner and therefore no match for Prince Charming (Dilip Kumar) who will soon be the emperor of India. A victory without question for money, privileges and power.
Looking at the cinema of the 1970s, you are told that capitalism was always an enemy that had to be defeated. The hero, however, took a step forward – poorer, he now belonged to the working class. Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay de Deewaar (1975) stacks up an empire but is not rich enough to buy his mother’s love. Again, the tantalizing battle between “money” and “love”. The Bollywood rule seems simple. The profit, if it is lavished on the needy in a generosity of spirit à la Robin des Bois, does not remain the evil that it is intrinsically. Cue the countless gangster hits, from Agneepath (1990) to Raees (2017). Or the “heists” that extract money for popcorn laughs. Do you remember “Mayyat ka chanda” in Andaz Apna Apna (1994)? “Paisa kya cheez hai?” Raju (Akshay Kumar) asks in Hera Pheri (2000) before replying: “Haath ka mail”. Before even having possession of the dirty lucre, glib Baburao Ganpatrao Apte (Paresh Rawal) knows how to spend it all. He has his own laundry list that includes alcohol on tap.
Many critics have pointed out that the economic liberalization of 1991 unlocked India’s unlimited ambition. The sky was the limit and it gave birth to a thriving culture where money and consumerism could buy you happiness. Same sweet revenge – ask Suniel Shetty whose theme of rags to wealth (“50 paise to Rs 500 crore”) fueled the Dhadkan of the 2000s. The economic boom of the 21st century changed the way we lived our lives and steered Bollywood down the dirty path of profit, disconcertingly presented as a dream to a better life. Emraan Hashmi, whose career has been a mass friendly mix of free enterprise, lip-smacking and criminality, says in Jannat: “Jeb khali ho tabhi toh sapne dekhne chahiye”. He makes his fortune as a cricket bookmaker but meets his fair game in the end. Some things, it seems, have not changed. Heroes who want to make quick money are always punished. Capitalism may be a dominant force in today’s resurgent India, but it still cannot trump socialism as the apostle of moral certainty on Hindi screens for a few more decades. Until then, the billionaire’s club will continue to be the devil. The world of Tatas, Ambanis, Adanis and Birlas has their task, it seems.
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