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Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Fantasy of Endless Consumption

by Sudhanva Deshpande (December 25 2007)

Almost suddenly, the lower middle class has become a subject of Hindi films.

Consider the film Ta Ra Rum Pum. A racing car driver falls in love with, and eventually marries, a pianist, the daughter of a rich businessman. The hero is profligate, spending lavishly on parties and other luxuries. But this is not a problem, because the hero keeps winning every race he enters and because he buys everything on credit.

Till, one day, he runs into the evil driver at a race, and has a crash. He loses ten races on the trot, and is finally sacked by the team he races for, which promptly employs the evil driver. The installments begin to pile up, and eventually, the couple lose all they had.

Till the utterly predictable happens: the hero gets back to the race track, beats evil driver, salvages his name and career, and eventually moves back into the same fancy house he and his family had to vacate an hour earlier. This time, with the pledge that he will not buy things on credit.

The film itself is terrible. But sometimes, it is more fun to look at what a film could have been. Every narrative is pregnant with other possibilities; whether the end is tragedy or farce could well depend on which Marx wrote the screenplay, Karl or Groucho.

Ta Ra Rum Pum is a fantasy. It is a fantasy because it tells us, in the end, that our consumption need not be financed by debt. This is of course ridiculous, as anyone who has salivated at the latest plasma TV or a three-bedroom apartment knows. What used to be thought of as consumer durables are no longer so durable - the latest music system, or car, or refrigerator muscles out models released barely a couple of years ago.

In an earlier day and age, the middle class' craving for consumption was satisfied by foreign trips, and by dowry. No more. No more do you have to wait for a rich uncle to return from London or Dubai with flashy goggles, a Walkman, and a bottle of Johnny Walker. No more is extortion through marriage the only way to acquire a Bajaj scooter of dubious fuel-efficiency. Not that these avenues, benign as well as benighted, are no longer in use. Just that these are no longer the only ones available. Your bank calls you on Diwali-eve to give you a pre-approved loan of half a million rupees. What for, you ask. The call centre employee at the other end is incredulous: "You mean don't want to buy anything?"

Debt servicing becomes a critical part of the monthly budget. Some cope, some don't. Those who do, trapeze from one high-paying job to the next higher-paying job. Consumption has to be kept up. The only way to do so is to ensure that you don't hang around in the same company too long. This is of course the very opposite of what our fathers and uncles believed in. In those Five Year Plan days, you joined a company and grew with it. Today, though, if you want to keep up with servicing your debt, fidelity to job is anathema.

Companies evolve all sorts of ways to retain employees. Perquisites and paid holidays are what the upper end of the spectrum get. At the lower end, things are murkier. After courts ruled that companies cannot coerce employees to remain by making them sign bonds, companies - especially in the IT sector - make potential employees pay for getting jobs. You pay, say, forty or sixty or eighty thousand rupees at the time of joining, and the company pays you your salary, plus, say, two thousand rupees per month - this is from the money you paid at the point of joining. Forty thousand divided by two thousand is twenty - so you are compelled to stay with the company for at least twenty months. As soon as those twenty months are over, though, you are ready to move to another job.

Whatever else you may or may not do, though, living without debt is not an option. Be forever unsatisfied, Shah Rukh Khan tells us: do not be santusht (satisfied). The size of the moneyed middle class may be a matter of dispute, but the survival of corporations, and of consumer capitalism itself, depends upon the ability of corporations to draw more and more people into the web of consumption, whether they can afford it or not. Accordingly, the middle class - or, more precisely, the lower middle class - is suddenly thrusting itself into our imagination, via films and television.

The film I began with, Ta Ra Rum Pum, becomes interesting for this reason: it actually depicts the experience of the lower middle class, lusting after consumption but unable to service the resultant debt.

The career of the most interesting screenplay writer currently working in the Hindi film industry could be explained by this fact, that he is able to capture the experience of the lower middle class. I am talking about Jaideep Sahni, and his filmography includes Company, Bunty aur Bubli, Khosla ka Ghosla, Chak de India. Company, a story of a lower middle class Bombay boy who rises to become a gangster; Bunty aur Bubli, a story of two small-town lower middle class kids and their adventures on the margins of illegality; Khosla ka Ghosla, a story of a lower middle class family struggling to get back the plot of land they have sunk in their lives savings to buy; and Chak de India, a story of a lower middle class hockey player who fights, along with a bunch of mostly lower middle class girls, to redeem his reputation as a patriot.

The lower middle class of Jaideep Sahni's films is very different from the middle class of the old Basu Chatterjee-Amol Palekar films, largely because the nature of the middle class itself has changed, along with their attitudes, perceptions, aspirations and frustrations. That much is obvious enough. What is not so immediately obvious is that while Jaideep Sahni's middle class is upwardly mobile - or at least aspires to be upwardly mobile, using means fair and not so fair - the world they inhabit is, in the end, a world of fantasy. It is a world where a family has to neither sell its old house nor take a home loan to buy a new one, or a world where India can achieve sporting success on the world stage purely on the basis of grit and determination.

But the relationship between the upper and lower middle class is not without its own tensions either. The upper middle class have only disdain for the lower middle class. One recent film explores this tension quite pointedly: Bheja Fry, a take off on the French film Le Diner de cons. The premise of the film is simple: a bunch of wealthy friends get together every Friday and invite an "idiot" and make fun of him. The "idiot" obviously does not realise he is being made fun of. What Bheja Fry is able to depict beautifully is the utter disdain that the upper middle class has for the lower middle, its callousness, its self-centeredness, and its complete inability to see anything from the other's point of view, even if the other happens to be your own wife.

Yet, this lower middle class still has to be drawn into the cycle of endless consumption. In one sense, that is the great drama being played out on Indian television as well. Consider the so-called "reality shows" and "talent hunts". There is nothing "real" about them at all, nor is the purpose of the shows to hunt talent.

But that is not the point. Look at the individuals you see on these shows: most of them are from smaller towns, and most of them belong resolutely to the lower middle class. It is critical that this class be dished out the fantasy of unimaginable fame and unimaginable riches, even if that fantasy is to last merely a moment. In its ephemerality, in fact, the fantasy mimics the act of consumption itself: the moment of consumption is the very moment of utter boredom, the very moment when one has to start looking for the next moment of climactic release, the next moment of fantasy.

It is only fitting then, that the instrument of drawing the lower middle class into the fantasy of fame, riches and endless consumption is the ubiquitous mobile phone. The illusion of "reality" is made possible by the mobile phone, by the act of "voting". That the act of voting is simultaneously an act of consumption (you have to first buy a mobile phone, then you have to buy a pre- or post-paid plan, then you have to vote, for which again you pay) is neither coincidental nor trivial. The only reality in the reality shows is the reality of consumption. And who takes part in this reality of consumption? Overwhelmingly, it is the lower middle class, otherwise hidden from public view in cities like Solapur or Siliguri or Silchar.

To draw the lower middle class into the cycle of endless debt is critical, because that is the only thing that will sustain the endless consumption of the wealthy.

One final point about Hindi cinema. The fact that these kind of films are being made today is directly related to the multiplex boom. Only the multiplex, with its higher ticket prices per seat as well as with its multiplicity of screenings, makes possible the margins that enable such, relatively small budget and somewhat offbeat films, possible. In turn, the multiplex is itself made possible by the middle class's increased ability to spend on ephemeral consumption. And the multiplex, which originated in the affluent sections of our metros, has now moved to other areas as well: to the less affluent sections in the metros, as well as to non-metros. In other words, the condition that makes these films possible in the first place - the multiplex model of revenue generation - is also predicated on the very phenomenon the films reflect - the drawing of the lower middle class into the fantasy of endless consumption.


Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and works as editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He can be reached at

Bill Totten


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