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.

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Why do Bhai’s films never fail?

I haven’t seen Sultan yet, and I may end up not watching it, but I have seen my fair share of Bhai films (it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a genre by itself, capital B and all). And they’re entertaining, there’s no doubt about that.

As an economist who’s learnt about rational human beings though, there’s a lot that causes befuddlement where Bhai movies are concerned. In this post, though, I’m just focusing on one of these aspects: first weekend prices for Bhai movies.

Apparently, they’ve gone as high as 1200 per seat. Now, you might say, if you’re a Bhai acolyte, that it’s just because demand tends to be so high for His films. But it’s not just high demand (and this is what this post is all about), it’s also about inelastic demand.

Us economists are big on elasticity, and you’re about to find out why. Elasticity (or sensitivity) is simply the percentage by which demand goes down when prices go up. If, for a little change in price, there is a very large change in demand, we say a good is very price elastic. If, on the other hand, no matter what the change in price, demand stays the same, we say a good is very price inelastic.

Think cigarettes. Or Bhai films. Same story.

Now, demand can change because of a lot of things. It can change because income goes up or down, for example. A family that sees a drop in income might cut back on eating out (high income elasticity), but will not cut down on medicines (low income elasticity). It can change because the price of other goods goes up or down (drinking lesser chai because the prices of sugar have gone through the roof, or drinking more coffee because the prices of chai have gone through the roof).

All of these are examples of demand for a good changing (or not) because of a change in the price of that good, an associated good, or income. And that’s all elasticity is.

Of course, as recent events have proved, the demand for Bhai’s films is inelastic insensitive to what he says as well, but that’s a whole different story, okay?

Five things Udta Punjab teaches you about economics

First things first: if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should really go this weekend. Really good performances all round, and Alia Bhatt in particular is in a not-to-be-missed role.

Now, you might think that Udta Punjab is about one thing, and one thing only.

Charlie Sheen Drugs
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But for folks like us, we couldn’t help but take a look at an alternate angle: economics!

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Here are five ways in which you could try and claim that watching the movie was like learning economics in college.

  1.  If you want to build a business empire, choosing a product that has massively inelastic demand really, really helps
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  2. A high volume, high margin business necessarily involves a monopoly. Competition will likely be, well, eliminated.
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  3. Politicians know. And they’ll want their cut. Money talks.*

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  4. Truly effective reform of anything, anywhere can’t happen unless it begins from within. That applies to this movie, to people’s movements, or to countrywide reforms. Top down approaches tend to not work.

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  5. And finally, you’d think people would have figured this out by now, but if it needs to be said, we’ll say it: suppressing censorship never works.

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*Yeah, ok, you didn’t need to watch this movie to know that.