The role of ideological change in India’s economic liberalization

In an interesting paper, Nimish Adhia argues that in the 1980s Bollywood films began to shift from emphasizing collectivist duty towards individual happiness.

The injunction of performing one’s duty without regard to outcomes has been the basis of much of the Indian philosophical and religious discourse.

The dilemma is recurrent in Indian films…. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the dilemmas invariably resolve in favor of duty. The mother in Mother India (1956) shoots and kills her wayward son as he attempts to kidnap a woman—an action that would have been shameful for the village. “I am the mother of the entire village,” she says as she picks up the gun. As the son collapses to the ground, she wails and rushes to his side, and is shown to lament his death for the rest of her life, but the film valorizes her as “Mother India.”

But then starting with Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1986) there is a spate of films that celebrate the assertion of one’s desire. The assertion commonly takes the form of falling in love—an audacious act in a society where the sexual mores are conservative and a majority of marriages are arranged on basis of familial and community criteria. The young lovers in the big hit Qayamat se Qayamat tak (Doomsday to Doomsday, 1988) elope and endure enormous hardships on account of their families’ opposition. The families had a falling out in the past when they were neighboring landlords in the country. The demands of familial loyalty, shown to arise in this way from a feudal setup and concluding in the death of the young lovers, are condemned by the film as savage and outdated. “We are not the property of our parents,” the young man once counsels his beloved. “We need not be carriers of their legacy of hate.”

At the same time, the treatment of businessmen becomes more positive, wealth is shown as being earned rather than simply given, and the pursuit and achievement of wealth is shown to lead to happiness and pride rather than misery and spiritual death. Adhia argues that these changes helped to cause the liberalization reform beginning in the 1990s.

the ideological change is visible in the films of the 1980s, preceding the wave of liberalization starting in 1991. It lends support to the notion that the ideological change, reflected in the films as early as 1980, was a cause rather than a consequence of liberalization.

Guru, which I have called the most important free market film ever made, comes after liberalization but can be understood as in many ways the apex of these trends.

Hat tip: Prateek Raj.


Alex -

This is just not accurate. I am not sure if Nimish has seen enough Bollywood films from earlier eras. And he is putting a "classical liberal" spin on Bollywood history where films over time grow more "liberal" both in terms of shedding socialist pretensions and social conservatism.

The fact is that Bollywood has always been very very left-wing not just in its very explicit embrace of socialist ideas, but also in its extremely selective criticism of aspects of Hindu culture, while conveniently ignoring what might be deemed "regressive" in other communities.

In a typical Bollywood movie of the 60s, the brahmin pundit is invariably someone who is clever, scheming and sharp-tongued. The Christian Church Father is someone who is selfless and kind. And the muslim mullah a kind hearted universalist. These cultural stereotypes were ofcourse political and intended to bolster the Congress Party and its perverted brand of secularism and minority appeasement.

And no. Young love has always been upheld in Bollywood movies. And caste / community never comes up as a barrier. In fact most Bollywood movies are strangely silent on the existence of caste, though it is a living reality.

What happened in the 80s was a very very clear shift to the Right. Bollywood shed its socialist pretensions slowly but surely. And movies became more populist, less idealistic, and more vulgar in one sense (I would argue in a good way). It was still hardly "nationalist", and remained left of center, but less so than in earlier eras.

The movie being cited here as being revolutionary - Qayamat se Qayamat tak - is hardly that. Bollywood movies have featured even Live-in couples in big budget productions way back in the 50s. (Eg : Dev Anand starrer Paying Guest, available on youtube). If anything the "young love" movies of the 80s - 90s are conservative compared to the left-wing radicalism of an earlier era.

That's right. Characters in Hindi movies were casteless from a very early point of time. The barrier to unification of lovers was not caste but class and that clash, of rich boy / girl and poor boy / girl, had been explored in many movies long before QSQT. Raj Kapoor's Bobby came in early 70s and Kumar Gaurav's Love Story released in early 80s. Rajesh Khanna, the first superstar of Indian cinema, built his popularity through a string of romantic movies. What happened in late 80s was a return to romance after a decade and half of action through Amitabh Bachhan's movie. In terms of personal values, Amitabh Bachhan as the angry young man was no less individualistic than the teenage lovers of QSQT. We see him as a gangster having a mistress in movies like Dresser, Don and Shakti. This was by no means a conservative character. Sure, his mother was a central character in his life but then even lovers of QSQT and Maine Pyaare kiya were very attached to their families. If you have to look for the most conservative movies extolling the virtues of family, you will have to go to mid 90s when Rajshri Productions came up with " Hum Aapke Hain Kaun " which remains one of the biggest hits of Bollywood history.

Very correct.

Also let's not forget that the movies of the 50s-60s in particular, very openly valorized Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi among the Congress Party leaders. They selective chose to emphasize Gandhi's secularism, and downplay Gandhi's conservatism, as that was not convenient to the narrative.

Bollywood made it very very clear in those decades that it stands for a) Social liberalism b) A certain nostalgia for a Muslim India c) Socialist economic policies

" These cultural stereotypes were ofcourse political and intended to bolster the Congress Party and its perverted brand of secularism and minority appeasement." When I was in college in the late 1970s there was an article in a famous daily which complained that in Hindi films christians men are shown to be drunkards and christian women as available for free sex. No appeasement here. When a catholic priest was shown it was for a few seconds usually as a teacher. Made sense since in those days the best schools were catholic schools and the children in many of them were form all income and religious groups. I have not been watching Indian language films these days but I wonder if minority appeasement is replaced by appeasement of Hindu fanaticism in Hindi films

"When I was in college in the late 1970s there was an article in a famous daily which complained that in Hindi films christians men are shown to be drunkards and christian women as available for free sex"

Well, I do acknowledge that Christian characters were shown drinking more often than other characters. But that was merely reflecting reality. Alcoholism in India is more prevalent among Christians than the population at large. Kerala has the highest rates of alcohol use and abuse, which is not surprising given its large Christian population.

But I don't recall negative portrayal of Christians per se. Christians and Muslims were invariably the "good at heart" guys while the Hindu well-to-do were the scheming, selfish puritans

Everyone in my family watches Hindi films (with subtitles for the youngest generation) but they all kind of blur together for me so I can't cite specific instances but my impression is that the religious representation in older films was due mainly to socialism (which everyone believed even the Hindu nationalists of the day not just the Congress.)

So Vivekananda-style "work is worship" is to be admired but Brahmanas to be criticised for wasting their lives in "Mere Ritualism" instead of "Building The Nation." They also blur together with the stock character of the villainous, satanic Tantrik. But that is an ancient theme in popular folklore not a new one. On the other hand, The "Saintly, self-sacrificing widow" stereotype is one that could be said to stem from traditional Hindu values.

True, the mullahs and priests were not depicted negatively but not particularly positively either. Mainly they are bit players; stereotypes intended to show "We Are All Brothers In The New India" rather than to depict anything about their actual beliefs.

Contemporary films (and even moreso TV serials as another commentator notes) are more likely to show Hinduism in a realistic fashion. I don't think that is due to appeasement of "Hindu fanaticism" as much as the death of the old socialistic ways of thinking.

You're being tripped up by applying the American left right dichotomy to India.

In India is individualism traditional?

It's hard for an outsider to judge whether there is validity to this shift in tone, and not just cherry-picking of a few films that fit the thesis. Moreover, it would matter what the target market of these films was. Independent art-house films might be a leading indicator of social change, but mass-market films seem much more likely to be lagging social attitudes.

As the masses gain understanding, as they learn that they have been lied to, that their misery and enslavement is not due to past lives misdeeds and that their masters do not possess power and riches because they are spiritually superior, the masses will demand their rights. The more Modi totalitarians try to counter this trend (by resorting to ultranationalist populism and racism, by hunting down Christians and Muslims, who do not partake in devil-worshipping), the more the moral contradictions of the Hinduist regime will be clear.

In India, mass market films have often been much more radical than in say Classic Hollywood.

Partly because Bollywood in its early decades from 50s to 80s was dominated by Muslims and refugees from Pakistan. Somewhat similar to the dominance of Jews in early Hollywood of the 20s. And this meant films that were explicitly minoritarian and contemptuous of any form of majoritarian populism.

I would argue that the Hollywood of the Golden Age was a lot more conservative than anything in Bollywood. Eg : A William Wyler production like say "The Heiress" which is a Henry James adaptation, and a very explicit critique of young love , could hardly have been made in Bollywood. I don't recall one such conservative film from Bollywood, and I have watched hundreds...

I've never seen Bollywood movies as particularly radical, neither in the last century nor now. But that may be because I'm personally far more liberal than you (or the average Indian) are.

Muslims like "Dilip Kumar", "Meena Kumari", and "Madhubala" had to adopt Hindu names in order to star in high-profile movies, so I'm not sure your thesis of radicalism or anti-majority holds much water there.

Bollywood doesn't do (and has never done) social critique because it knows its audience. For any kind of social inquiry, you'll have to turn to the so-called "art movies."

Oh. You are very wrong here.

The likes of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala did not change their names because they were Muslim. But because they sought names that were more catchy and marketable.

Many Hindu actors also changed names. Be it Dev Anand (Dharam Devdutt), Ashok Kumar (Kumudlal Ganguly), Sunil Dutt (Balraj Dutt)...I can go on and on!

The name change was purely to make themselves more marketable. It had nothing to do with religion. Name changes have been very common in Hollywood too. Eg : Marion became John Wayne. Archibald Leach became Cary Grant.

I have read it claimed that some of the "bolder" Pakistani female actresses adopted Hindu names (Meera, Veena,...) because it is easier for Pakistani males to think of Hindu women as sluts.


It's plain wrong also to say that there was no "social inquiry" in Bollywood films of the 50s-60s. Most films were criticisms of the status-quo - and so very one-sided that the conservative viewpoint was never ever articulated or even considered. The underdog was championed unconditionally and the establishment derided.

But here I'd like to make the distinction between South Indian cinema (particularly Tamil cinema) and Bollywood.

Southern cinema was decidedly a LOT more socially conservative than anything in Bollywood. And this is true to this day.

Mostly agree, but I haven't seen that much difference between Tamil cinema and other south Indian cinema in this regard. Telugu cinema has pioneered some conservative themes (e.g., a movie like Shankarabharanam will never be produced by Bollywood), the world's first 3D Sanskrit film was recently made in Kerala etc.

This commentary seems to be mixing two different things: (1) expression of individuality and desire, and (2) free enterprise. In other words, social liberalism and economic liberalism.

I've seen very few Bollywood movies released after the turn of the century, but I've watched many in my childhood and teenage years, and my offhand impression would be that the writer is wrong on both counts. Bollywood has always produced stories about boys and girls falling in love, but the theme has usually been tragic, and the love of the Romeo-Juliet doomed kind than a triumphant one (with some exceptions.) And there have always been highly conservative themes to balance off the flashes of liberalism. I have also not watched TV soaps in decades, but my understanding is that they promote a staunchly traditionalist worldview. When it comes to social liberalism, it's usually one step forward and one step back when it comes to Indian popular entertainment.

On economic liberalism, I just don't see Bollywood as a leading indicator of change. If anything, businessmen were portrayed as quasi-gangsters until well into the 90s. The businessman-as-smuggler (the "smuggler" being the most dastardly villain that could appear in a movie) was a common trope in movies in the 70s and 80s. I would say politics was upstream from culture on this issue.

Well. I don't think you are acknowledging the social radicalism and an anti-majoritarian sentiment that has always characterized Bollywood. Which is understandable given that you are a social liberal yourself :)

I just dont see Bollywood films taking one step forward and one step back. All I see is a very very selective campaign against the well-to-do, against the upper castes (who may or may not be well to do). Particularly the brahmin and the Baniya (merchant castes).

Mother India for instance features an insanely wicked Baniya character. The objective there is clearly to vilify the merchant castes. Though the community has produced men like Gandhi, who were anything but socially conservative.

Bollywood's liberalism was never principled. But always prejudiced against Hindus. The same films looked very kindly on the most egregious forms of "old world" decadence in several Muslim social dramas that came out in the 60s.

You look at everything with a hindu upper-caste chip on your shoulder. Indian movies had to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the public ; you can't therefore have nuances but have to have things spelt out in black and white. Hence the most stereotyped villains possible. Most of the Movie financiers are upper caste or middle caste, but more important to get the ROI rather than social messages across.

Propaganda works. Send your donations to influence the masses by May 1st, and become a hero of capitalism!

Of course, Rene Girard was right, which only emphasizes the significance of images portrayed in films, in books, in music, in folklore, etc. That human behavior reflects the images seen and heard is not surprising, but the degree to which it affects behavior is alarming. Propaganda works! And now that we are subject to almost continuous images from ever-present media, our brains must be overloaded, sometimes producing highly anti-social conduct when the images are in conflict with more deeply ingrained beliefs.

"The likes of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala did not change their names because they were Muslim. But because they sought names that were more catchy and marketable."

may be partly true but Dilip Kumar as Yousuff Khan ( his real name) was unlikely to get much traction in that era.

"What happened in the 80s was a very very clear shift to the Right" - from upstream. The simplest explanation of this is that Bollywood apes Hollywood, and since the 1980s was a "Me Generation" in the USA, the Indian film industry simply followed the Western Trend.

90% of the time the rest of the world, though they hate to admit it, just adopt whatever the USA is doing. This is particular true of Southeast Asia, which does not have its own industry for anything, pretty much everything is imported and adapted for local consumption (the Fifty Leading Families --see Joe Studwell--will import Western tech and use it with a local flavor, after paying off the relevant government officials like the Tariff Raj for permission).

I don't think I can agree with the author's thesis, if there was a change in Indian movies it was that materialism seemed to become more apparent as the country grew richer. The last Bollywood movie I watched was either Lagaan which was a rip-off of much better sporting underdog or Asoka which wimped out on showing him convert to Buddhism.

If they didn't repeat the usual nonsense about Ashoka converting, then good for them:

Thanks for that. Sanjeev Sanyal's book looks interesting and I will get a copy.

Its also interesting to look at Hindi TV. The women have more rights in the soap operas ( than in the past) and some believe these are are influencing rural India in significant ways.

Pakistan blows India away when it comes to soap and TV drama production. All the Indian soaps my mother used to watch featured ten minutes of slo-mo reaction shots in a half hour show. And they all seemed to be the vapid goings-on of a rich industrialist extended family and the tensions of living in a joint family system.

I have heard, anecdotally of course, that bollywood has become less popular in some Asian/Maghreb African countries, because the characters have become far less relatable to them (where as a few decades ago they were, apparently). I have felt exactly the same way, back when I used to watch some bollywood movies, but somehow (and mysteriously to me) most Indians don't bother. Do you know what Pakistanis feel about this change?

Hard to say. Anecdotally most of the males in my extended family back home are far more interested in American TV and English football than Bollywood and other local entertainment. The women tend to be much bigger fans.

I'm curious how "Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year" (2009) fits into this analysis. I thought it was more pro free market & entrepreneur than just about anything from Hollywood.

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