A Well Played Century

Congratulations to Pranay Kotasthane and RSJ on a well deserved century over at Anticipating the Unanticipated. It is one of the best newsletters out there on matters related to public policy, and I would strongly encourage you to subscribe, in case you haven’t already.

And to borrow a metaphor from cricket commentary, they brought up their century in style, with a fascinating piece about the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949:

The notorious Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 was passed when Desai was the state’s Home Minister. To enforce the ban, the government created elaborate compliance machinery, misdirecting the limited policing capacity towards apprehending tipplers instead of protecting victims of other crimes. By the time this act was watered down in 1964, more than four lakh people had been convicted under Prohibition!


The paragraph I excerpted this from begins by saying that the BPA is rather well known, but I must have missed the memo. 4 lakh people – convicted for alcohol consumption. Because, of course, that was the most pressing issue facing a newly independent India: alcohol consumption. Pah.

Please, I implore you, read the entire post to understand how markets work when faced with arbitrary supply constraints in the face of palpable demand. (And a note to Pranay and RSJ: I’m dying a little, because for me, the perfect title for the post would have been Sharaabi Aankhein Gulaabi Chehra)

The post goes on to speak about another piece of genius policy regarding the “sale and holding” of gold, and the impact it had on status within Indian society. I often joke in classes on introductory economics about how Bollywood filmmakers needed unemployment benefits because “ismugglers” as a tribe began to dwindle post liberalization.

Or put another way, there’s a reason the title had to be “Once Upon A Time in Mumbai“.

The post also refers to another excellent blog worth following, written by Nitin Pai, and shows this graphic:

Source: http://acorn.nationalinterest.in/2014/01/29/what-causes-corruption-and-erosion-of-moral-values/

I’d only add one thing here – the second last level (“Unscrupulous and corrupt people become role models because they are successful”) is actually an even bigger problem, because interventions such as bans (and others, to boot: read the whole post) also stop honest people from being successful.

Put another way, Deewar is a great movie, but also a problematic one, because the audience’s Walter Mitty moments were related to Vijay, not Ravi.

There is much more in the 100th post, including a rant on education which I wholeheartedly agree with, but we’ll leave that for another day. Once again, congratulations to Pranay and RSJ, and here’s to the double century: cheers!

A Tale of Three Movies

We took a look at statistics in the previous posts, and learnt how India has gotten richer over time. Rather slowly, since independence until the mid-1980’s, and then increasingly rapidly since then. Which is all well and good, but every Indian knows that statistics are like skirts.

So let’s try and take a non-data oriented look at India since Independence, shall we? And what better way of taking a look at India than by taking a look at Bollywood?

In the year 1954, Bimal Roy directed a movie called “Naukari”. Starring Kishore Kumar (in a very un-Kishore Kumarian avatar), the movie is about the difficulty that the youth of India face in terms of finding employment in India’s cities. To call it a tear-jerker is an understatement – one calamity after another befalls our protagonist.

My point is not the plot, though, but the theme. If you accept the argument that mainstream Bollywood movies are all about giving the janta what they want, then this movie was a reflection of stuff that people identified with back then. A movie about an idealistic youth who leaves his village to go work in the city is what the 1950’s were about.

Fast forward to 1975, and to one of my all-time favorite movies: Deewar. I love it for the acting, the dialogues and the plot, as does everybody else, but my inner economist is also a big fan of the movie. You see, Kishore Kumar in Naukari was about finding a job. Amitabh, by 1975, had given up on finding one. One way of viewing the movie is to say that fate conspired against him. The other way would be to say that the system failed him – and I’d argue that this is something that quite a few people back then could at least partly empathize with.

Deewar succeeded for multiple reasons, but at least one of those reasons was the fact that it struck a chord with the youth of that time: anger about jobs being hard to come by is a palpable sentiment in most movies of that time.

And then move on to the movie that best represents the zeitgeist of the India that I grew up in: Dil Chahta Hai. DCH wasn’t about aspiring to get a job, it wasn’t about being angry at the prospect of not landing one – it was about not caring a damn about the whole thing. This point is repeatedly driven home in the movie: Aamir Khan’s dialogue just before “Koi Kahe”, or the scene with his parents in which he’s packed off to Sydney come immediately to mind.

And we lapped it up! Couldn’t get enough of it. And it is quite true: the middle-class urban youth of our time wasn’t big on worrying about landing a job. It wanted to drive to Goa in a Merc.

Each movie was appropriate to its time. Audiences in the 1950’s didn’t want to see Dil Chahta Hai, and theatre going audiences in the 2000’s didn’t want to see movies about jobs.

Well, ok, maybe they did.