Learn Economics By Watching Movies

Classes on Principles of Economics at the Gokhale Institute have been going on for a while now, and have included one class on how to learn economics by looking at a painting. Another class, the topic of today’s post, was about learning economics by watching movies.

Here is the chart for India’s GDP:

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MKTGDPINA646NWDB#0

And it is safe to say that something happened around the 1990’s, and India has never looked back since. But is it possible to tell the same story… not by looking at charts, tables and chapters from a book – but by watching movies?

Let’s watch clips from three of them, and see if we can’t tell ourselves a story about India’s growth episodes.

The first clip we’re going to watch is from a movie called Naukri. This is a movie from the 1950’s, and is about a young Kishore Kumar and the troubles he faces while searching for employment. We’re going to watch a song at the start of the movie, called Chota Sa Ghar Hoga:

In this song, Kishore Kumar tells his young sister and his widowed mother what life will be like when he finds a job. There will be, he tells them, a small house, material comforts, and better times than the ones they’re going through right now. The only thing that prevents us from enjoying all this right away, he seems to be saying, is that he hasn’t found a job just yet – but just you wait! Once he does, all will be hunky dory.

If you accept the premise that Bollywood is all about showing you what you want to see, then I would argue that it isn’t a far stretch to assume that in the 1950’s, people wanted to watch movies about finding a job. Now, of course, I should be taking a sample size of larger than one, and I freely admit to there being some cherry-picking involved. But that being said, I would argue that a movie titled Naukri would likely not be made today – and the protagonist would not be singing songs about finding a job. More on that note in a bit, but the point I am trying to make here is that back in the day, folks visited movie theaters to watch songs about finding a job. Their daydreams were about finding employment, and about how life would change for the better once they did find it.

By the 1970’s though, the Great Indian Dream had soured. Youngsters no longer wanted to watch movies about finding a job. Now, in fact, they wanted to watch movies about what would happen once they were unable to find a job – and this was no longer a question about “if”. Unemployment was all but guaranteed, and the daydreams in this decade were about what life would be like when no gainful employment was possible.

And what would life be like? Yash Chopra had an answer, in Deewar:

Nobody left the movie theatre wanting to be like Shashi Kapoor. Amitabh was the anti-hero, but he was the focus of the audience’s daydreams. It is society that has deprived us from being able to get gainful employment, Deewar is saying, and here’s a three hour escape from reality. Watch a movie and daydream about what happens when through no fault of your own, you find yourself unable to get a job.

This scene, the one that I have embedded here, is in fact saying that the opportunity cost of material wealth is a loss of values and familial ties. Not in such abstruse, academic tones – but that’s one way of thinking about this scene. Or put another way, Deewar could well have been titled Naukri Nahi Milegi – Ab Kya?

In economist-y terms, the optimism about finding a Naukri has been replaced with a surly pessimism about never finding one. And it’s one thing to say that India’s GDP growth rate never really took off in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and quite another to think about how Bollywood movies help us see the same thing – if we choose to look.

And about twenty-five years later or so, yours truly was in college. And when I was in college, our dreams weren’t about finding, or not finding a job. In fact, to borrow a phrase from the movie that I’m going to talk about, who the call cared where we landed up?

Our dreams, were, instead, about driving to Goa in a Mercedes:

There is another song in this movie, called Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe. And right before that song begins, Aamir Khan jokes that he is going to sing a song called “Naukri Paane Ke Sau Tareeke“. One hundred ways to find a job. He then chuckles and tells his befuddled audience that he’s only joking – who the hell cares where we land up.

Each of these movies could only have been made in their respective decades. Youngsters in my day wouldn’t have empathized with a movie about finding a job, much less a movie about what would happen if we didn’t get a job. Those concerns weren’t ours – at least, not of those of us who grew up in middle class surroundings in an urban environment. Dil Chahta Hai was a movie made for People Like Us. We didn’t have Aakash’s palatial house, and we stood zero chance of being sent to Australia to manage a business. And the idea that we could have taken a year off to go paint wouldn’t have gone down well at our homes.

But it wasn’t unbelievable. Out of our reach, sure, but not forever. Dil Chahta Hai was a movie for our times, much like Deewar and Naukri were movies for their times. And if you want to learn about how life changed on the ground for Indians post 1991, well, you could read the books, study the tables, and all the rest of it – or you could ask if Dil Chahta Hai could have been made before 1991.

Roger Ebert, the movie critic, was fond of saying that one shouldn’t ask what movies were about. One should ask instead, he’d say, how movies were about whatever they were about. What he meant by that was this: ask what the director is choosing to show you in terms of the set, the accessories, the plotlines, and the characters and their choices.

As economists, this lesson is equally important. When you’re watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to a song, ask questions about whatever it is that you’re consuming. Reflect on what is being perceived by you, and what is being shown to you. It enriches your experience, but it also helps you become a better social scientist.

And you’ll begin to appreciate movies, and why they’re made when they’re made.

For example, our generation absolutely lapped up Dil Chahta Hai.

But a movie about traveling to Spain for a holiday? Why, that’s outrageous! Maybe for the generation that came after ours, eh?

Postscript #1: Naukri is a movie about finding a job, but it is about much more than that, and the rest of the movie is actually quite bleak.

Postscript #2: An earlier version of this post is also on this blog.