Dilli-6 and Hippie Saturation

April 19, 2009

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.