This is a true story. In a past life, I was consulting for an Indian multinational seeking to expand in Europe. One remit required high visibility in Scandinavia and Stockholm was chosen as a springboard. I can claim to know the region a little but Stockholm I know like the back of my hand. Various ideas were on the table including a cultural show for some fifty CEOs and their significant others for a Friday evening event. One proposal was to invite a top classical music singer who also happens to be one of my favourites.
I proposed a dance ensemble from Mumbai closely associated with the film industry which had several foot-tapping successes to its credit. They were not Moulin Rouge at that point but held out promise of going beyond and better. They were young, excellent, sharp, fashionable and ambitious and above all, appropriate for a Friday evening Indian show in autumn in Stockholm. But we thought you liked this classical artist, I was told from across the table – another way of saying it was a bad idea.
I lost. The dance troupe was not Indian and intellectual enough and it did not showcase Indian culture was the bottom line. The evening started with a five-minute introduction of an Indian raag in Swedish and English. The audience was fidgety and hungry, the artist was distracted and nobody had any fun. It was a flop show. Indian culture, however, was safe. This is the end of this true story but it set me thinking about us as a people, our strengths, our talent that constantly fights mediocrity including bureaucratic mediocrity to grow and shine.
This piece is about a pet peeve linked to fun, strength, economic success and intellectual stamina. I am blue in the face asking for India’s film and entertainment industry to be an equal partner in Make in India, Shining India and all avatars, to be a comprehensive piece of India Inc. and lead Indian business delegations. At official dinners, I have never seen a film producer or director seated next to a visiting dignitary even though many of the latter quote lines from famous Hindi films shot in their countries. My suggestions have been met mostly with laughter and in some cases, even derision. For me, that is a clear indication that we lack self-worth and self-acceptance. A people that does not respect its popular culture and myriad tongues will neither be cultured nor modern and will hang somewhere in between.
Over the past few years, we have heard a lot about the power of disruption. People who have never built a company from scratch nor risked their own money are often the loudest. They lead boot camps and get paid to speak. And all this empty talk has to do with only a handful of industries considered serious. India's entertainment industry is never held up as an example of a sector where risk is a daily affair, losses are real and not picked up as non-performing assets (NPAs) by any banks and people fight back even as they lick their wounds. They even manage to have fun and entertain us along the way instead of talking down to us through grave graphs and irrelevant data bought from a consulting firm in New York or London.
Fun. Most Indians do not know how to have healthy, good-natured fun. Garrulous and vulgar gets noticed for those very reasons and anything else makes us uncomfortable as we look out of our pigeon holes and blink. This is not a blind ode but an informed challenge. If there is one industry in India that has touched every home in the country, it is this one. If there's one industry that people around the world recognise as truly Made in India, it is our films, entertainment and music industry. My best example was in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) 15 years ago where our music was piped in the lobby as people queued to check in. I didn't see a single pair of still feet.
One reason one of India’s top industries is not at the high table is because it is an entirely home-grown Indian brand with all the possible finesse and foibles that makes India what it is. I am not talking about the obvious stars but others who form the body of the industry. Why can’t film directors and producers, musicians and dancers travel with India Inc.? These are business people who take risk, understand India, can speak about what works and what doesn’t, from their perspective and bring in knowledge about the economy that cannot be found in any MBA reading-list. What is holding us back if not our complexes about what is Indian and what is not? And who are a handful of people sitting in New Delhi to decide what moves and shakes India and what Indians want?
I am not a film buff but can claim to know something about music. The music coming out from India today is outstanding not just in range and depth, but also in texture, intellectual leaps and daring. The element of surprise which points to pure genius is such a part of what our musicians are composing. How many jobs does the putting-together of a piece of music create? How many people does it take to produce a full-length film – 2,000, 5,000 or 10,000? Jobs and skills anyone? Do we have comprehensive primary and secondary data which can help investors look at this industry as one that can pull in investments?
It is important to be in Cannes and Hollywood, but if one of India' top industries and job creators is not recognised in the country for its talent and economic worth, we are pretty hollow.
(Views expressed are personal.)