The Yuppies Return

I am in grave danger of becoming as obsessed about my hippie-yuppie-lala theory as much as Skimpy is about his studs-and-fighters theory. But there’s now a new Madhavan/ Vidya Balan Airtel ad, and considering the original set of ads was one of the original inspirations for the theory, I can’t resist. Especially considering the new ad unleashes yuppieness far more than the original set did. It’s not on YouTube yet, but the Airtel website has a low-res flash version – click the My Airtel My Offer link. I’m thrilled about this – there had been no yuppie ads by Airtel for almost a year – only ones featuring Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan as themselves, therefore hippies.

In addition to all the yuppieness that was there earlier – the contemporary furniture and the clean haircuts – Vidya Balan is reading a pink newspaper (I can’t make out if it’s the Economic Times or Business Standard), and talking about slowdowns and cutbacks. As we know, hippies inhabit a non-cash economy and lalas inhabit a black-money economy, so slowdowns and cutbacks hardly register.

The new ad also raises a question – if yuppies are back on advertising, does it indicate that the recession is drawing to a close?

Devangshu Datta of Business Standard has a theory that RK Laxman notices the state of the stock market only when valuations are so unrealistic that the market can’t get any higher or lower. So whenever there’s a Common Man cartoon that has a punchline about the stock market, it means that it’s hit a peak or a valley and has to change direction – that’s when you buy or sell. Leading on from this, I naturally want to know if a similar pattern exists with advertising. Do ads that mention a recession get aired only when the recession is about to change course? Are they as exact as the Common Man, or do they lead or lag the actual turning point by some amount of time? Or is it just completely random? I appeal to the current batch of MBA students to run the regression analysis as a term paper.

Dilli-6 and Hippie Saturation

Remember my post from last year about how there are no yuppies shown in Indian television or blockbuster movies? Any character you come across in them is either a member of a lala business family or does something quirky/ outlandish – hippie, in other words – like being a cartoonist or a supermodel or a musician. But people who work the nine-to-five – or actually, in the Indian pre-recession context, ten-to-eight –  shift usually get no love, except in low-budget low-viewership multiplex movies. There are no IT engineers. There are no bankers. There aren’t even accountants.

Back then, while I observed the phenomenon, I didn’t bother to explain it. Earlier this year, I saw Dilli-6 and to my great delight, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and team have come up with an explanation1. It was actually referenced by Baradwaj Rangan with some irritation when he reviewed the movie:

When Bittu remarks that she wants to become Indian Idol because that’s the only out for an “ordinary middle-class ladki” like her to make the transition from a nobody to a somebody, the line grates – a sweetly personal dream is inflated into a thudding aspirational reality for a certain segment of society.

I didn’t find it that ham-handed. In fact I’m overjoyed that Bittu is used as an example of why the aspirational stuff shown in movies is stuff like being a singer or supermodel rather than having a comfortable corporate existence (which going by the mad rush for engineering college admissions, seems to be the actual norm in India).

The thing about a hippie career track is that it’s mostly all-or-nothing. There’s only room for about a dozen or so superstars in every hippie field, while the rest become obscure strugglers. You can make it to the Indian cricket team and ride endorsements to your old age, or get stuck in low-paying Ranji cricket or ICL. If you’re a Bollywood superstar, you will have a bungalow in Bandra. If you’re a minor actor you have a shared 1 BHK in Lokhandwala. If you’re a struggler, you live in a chawl in Dadar. The rewards fall off drastically compared to the yuppie world where even if you’re not a hugely successful yuppie, you just end up putting a smaller apartment or one which is a further commute away.

But if you’re aspiring to be a successful yuppie is that to get there you have to take a bunch of small steps. First you pass out of school with reasonably good marks. Then you do reasonably well in college. Then you get a reasonably well paying job, and keep changing jobs until finally you have credit card, car, and contemporary kitchen.  The beauty of the yuppie career track is that by and large you can’t ever get thrown out of the game. If you don’t do all that well in school, you go to a shitty college but you can still work like bonkers and get a decent job, though it becomes harder. But you still have to complete the sequence of moves one way or the other.

So the insight that comes from Dilli-6 is that the hippie career track becomes the default aspirational choice for lala kids when their parents block any of the small steps on the yuppie track – whether it’s a Bachelors, further education, or work. If the yuppie path is being completely blocked off, you might as well take the massive risks of the hippie path – and so you’ll dream of becoming an Indian Idol or a fashion designer.

The whole thing reminds me of Chapter 3 of Freakonomics, about how drug dealers live with their mothers. Drug dealing is also a hippie profession where most of the people lower down the chain get no money out of it, are at high risk of being shot or arrested, and have to live with their mothers. The people right at the top of the gang live opulent lifestyles. But if you’re mired in American inner-city poverty, you’re probably not getting any other job, so you take up the horrific lifestyle of a low-level dealer in the hope that someday you might strike the jackpot at the top of the gang.

1: It isn’t necessarily a correct explanation. But at least someone in mainstream Bollywood is finally addressing the issue. Hopefully more people will follow with other explanations.

Why is there no Yuppie Programming?

So what is it about TV that inspired me to write arbit posts defining lalas, yuppies and hippies? Well, it’s like this. Ever since I started watching TV about four months ago (when I moved in with relatives in Mumbai), I’ve realised this about it – all Indian TV (fiction) programming is centred around lalas and hippies. But never yuppies. As far as the people who make Indian TV serials are concerned, yuppies don’t exist.

Now soap operas of the K variety are of course dominated by lalas. From what little I’ve seen of them (fortunately, my relatives in Mumbai are not devotees) they’re centred around gigantic business joint families where everyone is scheming against each other, often for control of the business. Very lala, really. Even when said soap operas are not of the Balaji K-variety, they tend to involve ginormous lala families.

My cousin watched two soap operas earlier in the year. One involved a female who was dark skinned, so she was married off to a spastic guy. As in, literally spastic. I am not making this up. But the spastic guy belonged to a giant lala family and his sister-in-law schemed against this dark-complexioned chick. So full lala fundaes again.

The other soap opera was halfway between hippie and lala. Like I said, these things are intersecting stereotypes on a Venn Diagram rather than properly mutually-exclusive-collective-exhaustive categories. So anyway this one is about a star kid who’s being launched by his bigger movie star (or maybe director or producer) dad. Now being a movie star is as hippie as it gets, but if you’re being launched by your dad than lala fundaes come into play again.

The point is that in all of this, yuppies are missing.

Cut to now. My aunt’s favourite thing on TV these days is this thing on NDTV Imagine called Radha ki Betiyaan Kuchh Kar Ke Dikhayengeen. It regularly scales new heights of hippieness. It’s about this woman from Meerut who packs up and brings her daughters to Mumbai so that they can be successful in life.

What’s amazing is the path to success these daughters take. The accepted path to success is the yuppie one – become an engineer, then become an MBA, then become a finance professional, and pay off your EMIs for the next thirty years. You would think that these daughters would follow it too. But no! The oldest one gets a job at a fashion design house, which is the borderline between hippie and yuppie. But then she quits to enter a dance contest, and abandons all pretensions of yuppieness. And in fact this goes on throughout the show. The three daughters and their mother perpetually have to raise money for some reason or the other. It’s like watching a Sunday morning kids movie every night at primetime. And instead of doing it the yuppie way and becoming management consultants, they do it buy selling songs they’ve written, taking part in dance contests, and providing Hindi tuitions. Something involving Excel, or even maths done with pencil and paper never crosses their minds. It’s amazing.

Then there’s the stuff my cousin watches. There is first this show on Star One about doctors who seem to spend all their time singing and dancing rather than taking care of patients. So you have singing dancing doctors who never worry about the price of bhindi, or how much rent they’re paying. Come to think of it, they don’t seem to have homes – they just sing and dance at hospital. The point is that yuppie concerns of day-to-day minutiae are given the go-by.

Now it would be okay if the total absence of yuppie characters was restricted to television. But it exists in movies also. There are no yuppie characters in Bollywood either. Everyone in a Hindi movie is blissfully unconcerned about where the money is coming from. When will you ever see a Hindi movie character worrying about rent, or who’s going to clean the toilet? Let’s run through some of the movies in 2008:

  • Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na: everyone is hippie or lala. Aditi wants to do a course in filmmaking. I mean, come on. How much more hippie can you get? The guy she gets engaged to has a family business and is lala. Her brother is hippiemax. Even Jai never gets around to being a yuppie. To all indications, his mother doesn’t ever bother about rent because she lives in an owned house – lalaness, again.
  • Drona and Love Story 2050: Ok, the characters in these don’t fit any stereotype, but it’s still yuppie exclusion.
  • Singh is Kinng: Farmer with a heart of gold becomes head of the Australian mafia. Hippie, hippie, hippie.
  • Kidnap: Rich daughter of gazillionaire? Lala.

You see my point, yes?

So in all of this, do yuppies get seen at all? Well, yes. But only in the ads, which most people just surf away from. Now, let’s look at this in detail. With YouTube examples!

Usually, the category with the maximum yuppieness is life insurance. Which makes sense. Lalas don’t need life insurance because they’re already rich and have enough assets to take care of their dependents. Or if they do buy life insurance, they’ll buy whatever their CA-moonlighting-as-insurance-agent will sell them, not on the basis of advertising. Hippies don’t make financial decisions and just leave it to their private banker or lala family’s accountant. So you have to pitch to yuppies, who actually live on a month-to-month basis and have to worry about this shit. So it makes sense to have yuppie-focused advertising.

For a long time, the HDFC Standard Life ad was the yuppiest in India:

Consider! It has a daughter buying her father a car, which is the antithesis of regular lala relationships. Buying their parents stuff is probably what every yuppie dreams of. Plus look at all the other yuppie indicators – personalised checkbook from a new age private bank, shirt and pants instead of salwar kameez or sari, hair let down instead of plaited. In fact HDFC Standard’s slogan – Sar Utha Ke Jiyo – is the sort of thing that resonates more with yuppies than anybody else.

So yes. For a very long time, nothing could beat HDFC Standard Life in the yuppieness stakes. And then Airtel unleashed Madhavan and Vidya Balan. First, they established the young and urban part by showing them at an apartment building’s lift:

Having established yuppieness, they then set out to reinforce it:

Once again, we have the yuppie aspiration of giving money to parents instead of the other way around. Plus, check out the furniture. It screams yuppie. But in case you had any doubts at all, the next ad in the series set out to bury them once and for all:

Now prepaid recharges may not seem very yuppie. After all good yuppies have postpaid corporate connections. But set that aside for a while. And look at everything else in the ad. You have Vidya Balan telling Madhavan to make salad and do the household chores. This is the pinnacle of yuppieness. Hippies have domestic help to do the household chores. As for lala families, the woman telling the man to do stuff around the house is an exercise in futility.

But anyway. So there are yuppie characters in ads. But even this is in a very small set of ads. Usually for services, especially the financial sort. FMCG ads are dominated by celebrity endorsements (i.e., hippies). So are laptop ads for some bizarre reason. Confectionary ads have fantasy characters, and Fevicol actually goes so far as to show poor people. And like I said, people mostly surf away from ads, so it doesn’t really count.

So clearly the situation is grim for us yuppies. We get no representation in popular culture, and now the financial crisis is making the real world dark and depressing too. Now, we can only hope that the recent spate of yuppie suicides will mean that Sainath will give us some love. But honestly, who wants that?

PS1: I realise I’m only looking at lalas, yuppies, and hippies and ignoring poor people. But that’s pretty much because there have been no poor people in movies or on TV since the 1980s. People who watched Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and encouraged the secular trend in movies about hippie kids of lala parents, this is your fault.

PS2: Actually, even when there were poor people in the movies, they weren’t really poor. Even if they lived in chawls, rent never seemed to be a factor. Indian cinema and television is a fantasy world where everyone owns their house, no matter how poor or unemployed they are. (Insert subprime crisis/ NINJA mortgage/ Congressman Barney Frank joke here.)

PS3: Actually, there is one Hindi movie this year which has acknowledged the presence of yuppies. In fact it has covered all three stereotypes. But that will be discussed in the next post.

The Rich Are Not Like Each Other

There are three kinds of rich people in India. Lalas, yuppies and hippies. If you’re a rich person in India you pretty much fall into one of these three stereotypes unless you’re a rich hermit or something. By the way, this division is based on behaviour rather than actual net worth or occupation. So even poor or middle class people who feel rich and act that way fall into these categories. With that settled lets define them.

So lalas are basically the people who run family business or their family members. Their source of income is pretty much selling whatever the family business makes or doing real estate deals. To handle their finances they employ an accountant. To handle their homes they have domestic servants who are trained by the women of the house and who generally stay with the family in a lifetime employment situation. And the homes themselves have been in the family for years or purchased with a heavy black money component.

Then you have yuppies. These are basically the people whose income is salary from third party organisations and capital gains (though the capital gains are only for advanced yuppies). For housing they either pay rent or housing loan EMIs. They also do their household chores themselves or in the best case have a very unreliable kaamwali bai who they don’t have the time to train. The mark of a yuppie is that she or he does his or her own finances including personally paying the credit card bills, going over bank statements and marking their investment portfolio to market. And typically their job involves any one of the following either as input or output:

  1. MS office files
  2. code
  3. statistical models

So that leaves us with the hippies. The hippies are basically people who have neither family business nor salaried employment. They do stuff like fashion design or star in TV serials or movie direction or guided tours of Chandni Chowk or write books. This is stuff which doesn’t give a regular salary and which rarely involves Microsoft Office. The unsuccessful hippies are the ones who live with their lala families and whose day to day lives are handled by the lala family’s accountant and domestic servant. But the successful hippies like Arundhati Roy and Rakhi Sawant move out. Then they buy houses on EMI, employ a higher class of kaamwali bais, and have their personal finances looked after by private bankers.

Now of course there are boundary conditions. People who work in marketing and advertising draw salaries but basically have hippie occupations. So they are borderline hippie-yuppies. Then there are borderline lala-yuppies who handle new divisions of the family business. And all yuppies dream of being hippies and spending their days playing in a rock band instead of working the 9 to 7 grind. So these are not mutually exclusive categories but have some overlap and you can make a Venn Diagram of lala-yuppie-hippie.

But why am I talking about all this? Well mostly because I started watching TV back in July. That inspired me to come up with a blogpost, but before I can write that blogpost, I have to write this one with all the definitions. The main blogpost will come up soon. Till then, pip pip.