How Bollywood’s reel world has tracked India’s economic evolution over years

As Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, Bibek Debroy’s contributions to economic theory, study of income and social inequalities, and to law reforms, and additionally to Indology are well known. But Debroy has also, surprisingly, co-authored a paper that looks at India’s economic transition through Bollywood’s eyes. “We made a film on CD, with clips: the idea was to use Bollywood to drive home economic policy messages. This paper was born of that,” he confides. In this offbeat interview, he expands on the theme.

Your paper notes that films over the years reflected the changing moods in economic policy…

We’re essentially talking about commercial films: films that began to reflect liberalisation, with a time lag. We also wanted to look at the portrayal of villains. At the time of land reforms, the typical villain was the landlord. Then, when the Essential Commodities Act came along, the villain was often the hoarding ration shop owner. Then, during the phase of urbanisation and land conversion, the real estate mafia was the villain. In between, when you had the Gold Control Order, the gold smuggler was the villain. When liberalisation happened, we had a new aspiring middle class, and an entirely different film villain.

From the 1950s through to the 2000s, what sense does Bollywood convey of India’s changing attitude towards wealth and poverty?

In films made in India by Indians, when we talk of an aspiring middle class, the idea that it is not bad to be rich begins to come out clearly. But economic changes are reflected in many unlikely areas, too. For instance, one could sit down with all the Amul ads, say, or with RK Laxman’s cartoons over time, and see how they reflect the economic transition.

Do films have a ‘moral responsibility’ to give solutions to societal problems?

The average commercial film isn’t expected to give solutions, but you also have a film like Saaransh, which subtly depicts flaws in the system. But Bollywood is itself a reflection of society. In that sense, we may need to see more transparency in the funding of movie-making, for instance. For that, you need an internal ‘cleaning up’, without which no moral message will reach the audience.

Are there parallels between the economics of ‘Bollywood’ and the broader economy?

We have a society and economy in the 21st century, but a lot of stuff is informal. Overnight you cannot transition from the unorganised to the organised. This is true of the broader economy, and the film industry is no different. Take something like credit: forget the formal banking system, I’m not even sure if in the informal system the way credit is granted is very transparent; or whether the distribution system is transparent.

Will giving film-making industry status help?

That recommendation has been made several times, and I am in complete agreement with it, but it is a red herring. What does it mean to declare it as the industry? It means getting credit from the banking system. This presumes the film industry wants to borrow from the formal banking system, which will bring in greater transparency requirement. I am not convinced the film industry across the board wants this transparency. Unless that happens, the demand for declaring it an industry doesn’t amount to much.

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