There was a time when a person with money in Hindi films was a sure-shot Bad Person. There were several kinds of villains, but those in possession of loads of cash were automatically branded hoarders, black-marketeers, smugglers and thieves. Or worse: the mere mention of money, in fact, was the marker of a character who, we knew, would either be derided, or scoffed at, or come to A Bad End.
In the1958 Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, the incomparable Kishore Kumar sang : “Tere liye majnu ban sakta hoon, laila laila kar sakta hoon… lekin pehla de de mera paanch rupaiya barah anaa.” We knew that the mention of that ridiculous sum in front of the stunning Madhubala is just a joke. We are being set up for laughs, and we chortle as we are meant to.
Just two years before, in 1956, money (or the lack of it ) had raised its vile head in another Kishore starrer, called, simply, Paisa Hi Paisa, in which a miserly father would like his son to acquire a rich bride. Again, it is a comedy, and we know that pyaar will win, not paisa.
But money showed up in dark ways too. Raj Kapoor’s poor gaon-wala in Jaagte Raho (1956) is mistaken for a chor and chased through the night by people who possess everything but goodwill and generosity.
That the middle classes were greedy and insensitive was very clearly the theme of Jaagte Raho: the divide between the noble, suffering poor and the corrupt rich only got deeper down the decades. The ’60s were full of wealthy fathers, wearing velvet jackets and smoking pipes, and delivering lectures on amiri and gareebi.
Being poor meant that you had to be a victim. Moushumi Chatterjee’s character in the 1974 Roti Kapda aur Makaan undergoes a horrific rape on mounds of aata in a godown: the gap between the have-not woman and the aggressors, all haves, is as ugly as it has been in the movies, as is the depiction of helplessness and humiliation that such economic privation can lead to.
When Amitabh Bachchan declared famously in Deewar (1974), “Main aaj bhi phenke huey paise nahin uthata”, we are instantly aware of its rich irony. Bachchan’s Vijay has been forced to cross over to the wrong side, but we know that he is innately good, that his pursuit of ill-gotten paisa will keep him away from the pyaar of his mehbooba, and more importantly, his ma, and his redemption will lie only in his death.
The rich boy-poor girl trope got fresh wind in the 1989 blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya, when Salman Khan’s Prem and Bhagyashree’s Suman are split asunder because of the difference in their “status”. That they come together in the end is a decisive win for pyaar, not paisa.
The economic liberalisation in 1991 made India a different country. The impact of the loosening up of the license raj and other restrictions, kickstarted the creation of a new middle class. This was a growing number which started taking branded, exported consumables for granted, as well as the spending power. Money became a desirable thing, and greed was finally good.
That you could have your cake and eat it too was the statement du jour of Dil Chahta Hai (2001). DCH broke away from the poor-are-good and the rich-are-evil templates that had been pretty much graven in Bollywood stone. It was a breakthrough film, and its embracing of wealth and freeing it from the shackles of morality, re-defined the way Bollywood made use of money from then on.
The DCH trio, Sid, Samir and Aakash live in homes that are tastefully but clearly opulent. Whose dining tables are laden with gleaming silverware. Whose living rooms are like American “dens”, strewn with flat-screen TVs, expensive leather couches and video games. Who think nothing of leaping into expensive cars to drive off for a weekend. On a whim. On an impulse. This is not a holiday planned months in advance on the Leave Travel Allowance that came your salaried way once a year. This was a “hey, guys, let’s go to Goa!” Just because they can. DCH gave us the kind of rich people we had never seen before. They were wealthy because they had presumably earned it, with nary a mention of black money.
Post demonetisation, no more old muddy-green Gandhi notes for latter-day Munnabhais. What is Bollywood going to use for cultural currency now? I’ll trade you a brand new Rs 2,000 note for an answer.