What can one say about the changing status of money in Hindi films? First off, I suppose, that there’s more of it on screen than there used to be. Unlike the largely well-off heroes of today, the protagonists of so many 1950s and ’60s classics were either born into poverty, or had it thrust upon them — their heroism was often about earning enough to survive, and trying to stay honest while they did so. This was true whether the film was set in the village or the city. The characters played by Nargis in Mother India, Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur or Guru Dutt in Pyaasa were all about maintaining their moral fibre despite all manner of tragedies. Money would not, could not sway them from their scruples — which might involve the defence of chastity, community, or artistic integrity. Another kind of hero was allowed to be more fallible, and we watched as he struggled to keep his conscience in a world jingling with monetary temptation: think of Dev Anand in Baazi (1951), House No. 44 (1955), Guide (1965) or Jewel Thief (1967), or Raj Kapoor in Awara (1951) or Shree 420 (1955).
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It is not surprising that in both categories, those who already had money were usually villains, feudal or capitalist: the lecherous baniya Sukhilala, unmoved by the sufferings of Nargis and her children; the crooked city-returned Kundan (Jeevan) in Naya Daur, so keen to capitalise on technology that he would destroy a whole village economy; the publisher Ghosh (Rehman) in Pyaasa, so avid in his pursuit of profit that he conspires to have a man locked up and declared dead. As long as the Hindi film hero was a struggler, the rich man was likely to be a source of corruption, or conflict, or both — think of Seth Sonachand in Shree 420, who tries his best to turn the honest Raj to crime by means of the glittering Nadira, whose character is literally named Maya: illusion.
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When it was playing things lighter, popular Hindi cinema sold an alternative fantasy to its largely working-class audiences: here the hero who was poor would eventually luck out, either by discovering that he was high-born and thus an heir to great wealth, or by getting the pretty rich girl anyway. But, usually, unless he was the father of the hero or the heroine (and sometimes even then), the big man in the palatial Hindi film home was always guilty until proven innocent, slimy until proven straight. In that cinematic universe, even villains conceded that money was always ill-gotten: “Daulat ka pedh jab bhi ugta hai, paap ki zameen mein hi ugta hai (The tree of wealth always grows in the soil of sin),” as Amjad Khan declared in Kaalia (1981).
The Amitabh Bachchan era marked a partial shift in this valorising of mehnat ki mazdoori. To be sure, Bachchan did carry on a certain kind of socialist film tradition as the labouring hero battling crooked capitalists — Coolie (1983) is perhaps the most memorable example. But he also embodied the intense disillusionment of the 1970s and ’80s, lending his baritone to a growing rage against a world in which the straight and narrow was beginning to seem a path to eternal poverty. Still, the Bachchan hero’s pursuit of wealth was never just about the good life — he might seem coolly stylish, even shaukeen, but the money was really meant to plug the gaping emotional hole in his soul. In Trishul (1978), for instance, his creation of a business empire is really about destroying the man who once abandoned his pregnant mother; in Deewar (1975), his quest for riches is a way of avenging the poverty of his childhood. But as that film’s classic Salim-Javed dialogue made abundantly clear to the millions who grew up on it, money couldn’t buy you love. “Aaj mere paas buildingey hai, property hai, bank balance hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai. Kya hai, kya hai tumhare paas?” demands a belligerent Bachchan of his honest policeman brother (Shashi Kapoor), only to be crushed by the retort “Mere paas Maa hai.” The very vocabulary of trade was a tainted one: as Nirupa Roy says plaintively to Bachchan in the same film: “Tu bahut bada saudagar hai re, lekin apni maa ko khareedne ki koshish mat kar. (You’re a big businessman, but don’t try to buy your mother.)”
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The years after liberalisation have changed our cinema a great deal, as they have changed us. From clapping for the self-made Bachchan hero who refuses phenke huye paise in Deewaar or rises in rage in Trishul at the idea that his ambitions might stem from having come into his baap dada ki daulat, we have reached a stage where we can smile indulgently at Ranbir Kapoor when he introduces himself to Konkona Sensharma in Wake Up Sid (2009) with “Main? Main apne dad ke paise kharch karta hoon (Me? I spend my dad’s money).”
It is now alright to have money, as well as to aspire to it. And the making of money need no longer be couched as serving some emotional need — the ends can often justify the means. In Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), the capitalist who smuggles in machine parts and manipulates the stock market — a screen character rather closely allied to the real-life Dhirubhai Ambani — is no longer the villain but the hero. More recently, in Raees (2016), a liquor-selling ganglord is presented to us as the heroic outcome of an entrepreneurial society where the independent single mother — an updated Nirupa Roy character — is now one who teaches her son that no business is too small, and no religion is bigger than business. “Hamare liye koi koi bhi dhandha chhota nahi hota, aur dhandhe se bada koi dharam nahi hota.”
Such money-making baniya heroes are still infrequent. Barring the steady trickle of small-town/middle class films, Bollywood seems to reflect the wide disparity created by money in the new India. On the one hand are the likes of Saif Ali Khan, Ranbir Kapoor or the newly-arrived Barun Sobti, playing the haves, whose search for selfhood involves looking beyond money (Chef, Tamasha, Tu Hai Mera Sunday). The other features the have-nots, for whom money would remain out of reach if they stayed honest, must either win world-scale lotteries as Emraan Hashmi-style confidence men, or steal, as in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye or Simran, or — as in the Anurag Kashyap gangster film — sell their souls into violent crime.