Workplace ethics and Indian cinema: What do low productivity and unrealistically made films have in common?

MK Raghavendra

May 08, 2019 10:28:47 IST

There is a general sense that the work ethic among Indians is not laudable, especially since efficiency does not run high. If one looks at global businesses, Indians have done better abroad than at home, though they spend longer hours at work here. Someone well-employed in the new economy in India moving to the US for higher education and then doing virtually the same kind of work is not uncommon. This seems entirely because working conditions are better in the US: Employees are not required to work long past office hours and on weekends. In India, a 12- or 13-hour day is not uncommon, and neither is a seven-day week.

To all appearances, Indians work much harder in India and still manage to be less productive. Where employees are encouraged to have a life outside their work in the global milieu, Indian corporates are known to encourage employees to spend even their leisure hours on the campus. An employee needing to ‘give 24 hours a day to his/her job if required’ is familiar rhetoric, though the demand is ludicrous.

All this suggests that it is the appearance of commitment that is demanded rather than productivity.

A question then arises: Could there not be embedded aspects in Indian attitudes encouraging this form of deception? Implausible though it may seem, we may be led to an answer by Indian cinema, since it gives us all kinds of clues to common ways of thinking.

Some years ago, an Iranian student pointed out that one gets a fair sense of what the US is like by watching Hollywood, but asked why Bollywood gives no similar sense of India at all. I thought awhile and replied that Indian films show you things not as they are, but as they should be. Since then I have been pursuing the idea at some length. Indian films are poorer in observation than films from any other country outside South-Asia. Under global influences Indian cinema may seem to be transforming, but underneath, most things still remain the same.

Popular films portray situations and characters in an immediately recognisable way, familiar not from observation but from popular belief, and as ideals. As an instance, few people in real life trust the healthcare industry, but popular cinema is yet to portray a doctor as useless. There is scarcely a film in which someone who gets medical treatment in time still succumbs to illness — unless it is first denoted as ‘incurable’. Hollywood appears similar but it denotes only some doctors as good, while in Hindi cinema all doctors and hospitals are generally good unless (as in Andhadhun) the clinic is shown doing nefarious work. The reason doctors are portrayed thus owes to Western medicine having been an emblem of good modernity since the 50s.

There are other comparable aspects, such as the way a character’s innate qualities can be grasped virtually at first glance in any film, so little are the prospects of more than one characteristic being present. Characters, whether good or bad, are made emblems of the qualities. In 3 Idiots, for instance, a film with a view of education that some people found alarming, Rancho is a ‘genius’ wanting knowledge, but we never see him actually studying. How does Rancho know so much without opening a textbook? The reason is that studying textbooks and genius are considered incompatible, since knowledge comes from ‘within’. Rancho being an emblem of ‘genius’ equips him in advance with knowledge, hence necessitating no ‘learning’.

Workplace ethics and Indian cinema: What do low productivity and unrealistically made films have in common?

A still from 3 Idiots. Facebook/

Even in the seemingly ‘realistic’ film Gangs of Wasseypur things are not differently conceived; grandfather and grandson meet the same arms dealer in the same Varanasi hotel room when each of them is around the same age, and in similar circumstances. Estimating that the meetings take place about 50 years apart, how does one understand the implausibility of the occurrence? 50 years is an interval in which virtually everything changes, not least of all cities and people. The explanation is that ‘hotel room’ and ‘arms dealer’ are emblems in the film and do not find correspondence in lived experience – where actual arms dealers and hotel rooms in Varanasi can be limitless in their variety. Similarly, the fabulously rich Indians from films who spend money lavishly in Europe are emblems corresponding to the urban Indian’s national self-image in the global age, which has no basis in observed Indian lifestyles. A middle-class Indian would need to spend a whole year’s earnings for a two-week family holiday in Europe.

Earlier in these columns I noted that Indian cinema has, with some exceptions, eschewed ‘mimesis.’ To illustrate what ‘mimesis’ means and its significance, I once read a first-person account by a British woman in India caught in the Mutiny of 1857 when she and her people were taking shelter in a barn in the vicinity of Kanpur, even as rebels were on the rampage outside. In her account the writer describes a mouse scurrying around, oblivious of those taking shelter or the mayhem outside. The point here is that this recounting is like ‘mimesis’ in that it is observing detail without finding it ‘trivial’ in relation to the momentous experiences covered by the narration. In a narration populated by emblems, such a passing observation could not have been accommodated. The detail, for example, would be completely out of place in today’s patriotic films. In most films whatever details are put in only further the central message, whether patriotic or otherwise. But such a narrative strategy in popular cinema, dealing with life as ideally conceived, is not of its own devising. Classical Indian theatre, for instance, proposes ‘mimesis of a special kind’, not imitating things in their actuality but in their ‘essence’ — which presupposes the elimination of purposeless observation, not part of the focus of the work.

This suppression of observation by idealisation and convention is a characteristic that one frequently encounters in real life in India. If one were to ask at what hour someone reaches office, the chances are that the hour given will be when they ought to get there, rather than when they actually do. When writing letters or maintaining diaries the scrupulous attention to observed fact is absent in most Indian accounts. William Dalrymple (The White Moghuls) tells of Indians whose children were brought up as Britishers and reproduces the letters of a granddaughter (Kitty Kirkpatrick) to her grandmother (Sharaf un-Nissa); only the granddaughter’s letter contains observational detail. The grandmother’s letter runs on the following lines: “Fresh vigour was instilled into my deadened heart and such immeasurable joy was attained by me that it cannot be brought within the compass of being written or recounted. My Child, the Light of my Eyes, the solace of my soul, may God grant you long life!”

Instead of treating each experience or phenomenon as unique and subjecting it to scrutiny, it is usually viewed as an emblem, and this has repercussions. VS Naipaul (An Area of Darkness) describes how places are cleaned in India – by simply dousing them with quantities of water, but eventually leaving them as dirty as they were. One sees this happening all around us – SUVs being washed furiously on pavements, even as the wet kitchen waste in plastic bags are lying unnoticed for days beside them. My sense is that water is an emblem of cleanliness, which explains both its wastage and the inability of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to inculcate anything like a sense of cleanliness in the public. Cleanliness is also a personal attribute (rather than a civic one), which is why people spit on the pavement to keep themselves clean. Politics leaders are adored or hated as emblems, and rarely does actual observation play a part in their evaluation; new information does not tilt the electoral balance.

Returning to the conditions prevailing in the workplace, the primary acknowledgement that needs to be made in the global age is that the relationship between employee and employer is entirely transactional; being employed only entails doing the entrusted work within specified hours. Being the employee of an organisation does not define the total person, which means that outside the hours when he/she is required to be working, he/she is free to live a private life that the organisation, by and large, will have no jurisdiction over. But this will imply defining the work required of an employee precisely — just as every cog in a wheel must have its shape carefully designed — restricting unplanned demands. I am not sure that such a situation prevails in India, where demands of ‘loyalty’ are primarily made.

At one time, the public sector, by providing housing, medical care and schooling to employees’ families, tried to become the emblem of ‘benefactor’; memories of the employer-as-benefactor may still be continuing. There is, even today, enormous rhetoric among various kinds of employers insisting that the employer-employee relationship is ‘sacrosanct’, perhaps like that of vassal and lord.

Once the employer-employee relationship is clouded over by the rhetoric of personal loyalty, judgements are affected.

A principal requirement in ensuring productivity is that superiors must be able to judge dispassionately. Judgement of performance implies clear-eyed observation, but when the rhetoric is one of ‘loyalty’, it translates swiftly into personal devotion to superiors. Over time, it may be conjectured, employees are encouraged to imitate the behaviour that is rewarded and gradually turn themselves into emblems of diligence, loyalty and commitment by staying overly late in the office, maintaining personal relationships with superiors and repeating the rhetoric they hear around them. Since personal loyalty, which is an emotional issue, is more attractive than dry efficiency at tasks, there could be pressure within organisations to leave tasks ill-defined so rewards can be handed out at will.

Popular cinema, as I proposed, conceals an enormous amount of truth, because it deals with ideals rather than observed reality. I will stretch this to say that the tendency in all kinds of communication in India is to conceal factual information — requiring disinterested observation — and compensate with idealised sentiments. The evidence that working conditions in Indian workplaces are unhappy even when productivity is low should have rung alarm bells — if the information had got out effectively, initiated an inquiry into business and industry conditions. But we live in a milieu in which observation has been suppressed for eons because of a belief in a greater reality, and we are still living with ideals and emblems. Being clear-eyed in India takes a great deal of effort that few people are able to make.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Updated Date: May 11, 2019 11:36:28 IST

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