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The Popular Aesthetics of Social Mobility

Akshaya Kumar ( teaches at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Indore. His monograph, Provincializing Bollywood: Bhojpuri Cinema in the Comparative Media Crucible, will be published by Oxford University Press (New Delhi) in late 2020.

Reflecting on the aesthetic trajectory of the idea of social mobility in Hindi cinema and situating such film texts within the long history of the optical relation between cinema and the city, this article argues that the film Gully Boy’s (2019) quest is anchored within neo-liberal freedoms, albeit topped with a laudable linguistic experiment. In comparison with the social mobility films of the last three decades, the film is marked by certain key departures and new blind spots, which occasion a rethinking of popular culture, particularly due to its increasing over-reliance on the attention economy of social media.

The author is grateful to Sreedeep Bhattacharya and the anonymous peer-reviewer for the comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Social mobility as a thematic axis around which various “pleasures” could be mounted, has been a long-standing kernel of Hindi cinema, particularly of the relatively big-budget star vehicles aimed towards attracting a mass audience. One could distinctly recall the films of 1970s–1980s featuring Amitabh Bachchan, for the manner in which they showcased a cross section of the city while narrating a tale of the protagonist’s rapid ascent. In the years to follow, numerous films would deploy the social-mobility text to profile the city as a stack of identifiable tiers, segmented by infrastructural barriers and communal bonds of solidarity.

Indeed, rapid social mobility was nearly always projected as driven by an inner evil that would be duly punished via a self-confessional account—one of the last instances of which was witnessed in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992). In the last three decades, however, such narratives have undergone a rapid decline. It may be a good idea to investigate the popular aesthetics of social mobility, which have shifted from the mainstream of film-going habitus to the margins of the cinema-city organism, for which the promise of social mobility constitutes its inner vitality.

The Cinema-city Organism

The idea of social mobility, in all possible valences, has held much sway over cinema for at least three reasons. First, the destiny of cinema in India has been deeply tied to large-scale migration to cities. This includes both the working classes and the salaried middle class. The promise of social mobility has provided the definitive overlap between the aspirational profile of the audience as well as that of an outsider-protagonist, who intervenes, interferes and interrogates via satire, action, public shaming or by self-incrimination. It allows popular cinema, in general, to make formal crossovers and aggregate a variety of pleasures. Second, the social-mobility text also carries the legacy of film history and its maturation in the furnace of postcolonial nation-building. Particularly in the figure of Raj Kapoor, Hindi cinema found its peculiar formal and scalar stability by foregrounding cinema’s self-confessional affiliation to nation-building. Providing social mobility was key to the basis of national citizenship segmented by class, caste, language and region-specific boundaries. It offered a cumulative affordance to amplify the role of cinema.

Third, the blend of social mobility narratives with the epic sweep of melodramas allowed cinema to index the city in terms of classes and saturate the frames and narratives with fascinating contradictions and diversity. The ode to the city, imagined in terms of conflictual image-making—frames within frames, play with foregrounds and backgrounds, verticality and horizontality, style and squalor—which have constituted the mainstay of “artistic” optics of journalistic, anthropological and creative knowledge economy, comes alive in cinema when the verbal enterprise is allowed to mount the optics of cinema and the city. In such an imaginary, cinema and the city are implicated in each other as complementary optical systems constituting a singular organism that feeds insatiably on capital.

In a sense, then, cinema has a privileged point of “view” to investigate and delineate the city, making it both complex and legible. But, of course, by the same token, it may prefer covering up for the city by way of “distractions,” since it is hardly in the best interests of popular cinema to reveal the environment in which it germinates. In fact, social-mobility texts repurpose the cinema-city organism to open up the “enormous semiotic playground of the city’s signage” with the help of the media production toolkit. This process of repurposing is not unlike the Las Vegas films of Hollywood that deploy the “neon signage clustered against the night sky” to navigate the alleys of compulsive overconsumption as the kernel of American identity (Goggin 2015: 252).

This cinema-city organism allows the films to mount a demographic and psychographic cross section of “the social,” so as to illustrate and amplify the class-based indexing of neighbourhood communities, individual aspirations and the attendant frictions between them. Indeed, much of Hindi cinema in the 20th century was shaped by the overlapping architectonics of the cinema-city organism and the aesthetics of social mobility. The city of Mumbai was the unchallenged representational territory of Hindi cinema. However, this presumed singularity now stands challenged since the spread of what I have termed the provincialising imperative upon the media industry (Kumar 2013).

The rise of competing units from within the media economy (television, mobile phone and the worldwide web in particular) has also destabilised the pre-eminence of the cinema-city organism, since other narrative platforms have their own optical relation to the city, as well as its rival constellations. The emergence of new media platforms has introduced us to competing optical regimes, which often privilege a raw, “unmediated” access to reality itself, over the narrative of social mobility rendered over time. Particularly notable among the contemporary media forms would be reality television and its many allied forms—interviews, podcasts, talk shows, news debates, pre- and post-match shows of all sorts and current affairs satire television shows. All these forms offer an alternative composition of immediacy and hypermediacy—two integral tendencies that constitute the essence of remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999).

Social mobility, as a key narrative axis to consolidate heterogeneous themes, is relatively discarded while remediation across media platforms, along with the attendant battle for an appropriate dressing/dwelling of intimate reality, has taken centre stage. This is partly due to the fact that the contrasting class profiles, which anchored popular cinema’s moral compass, have been increasingly set aside in favour of a genre-oriented packaging of the cinema-city organism. If the idea of social mobility brought cinema and the city together to offer a new postcolonial, imaginary, Hindi cinema in the 21st century largely offers most of the activity on genre-specific optics. In effect, the cinema-city organism has gradually shifted its focus to complex subjectivities suspended in between polarities at best, even as its optical self-definition is increasingly tethered to the provincial or historical counterpoint, as in so-called small-town films or period dramas. In this paper, I will discuss the neo-liberal revisitation of the cinema-city organism in Gully Boy vis-à-vis some recent films, particularly Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) (hereafter referred to as Oye Lucky).

Social Mobility in Recent Films

Oye Lucky is set in a rapidly transforming New Delhi, increasingly constituted by a multiplicity of flows, caught between the provincial and global inflections. I have discussed at length the friction between these inflections in my earlier work on the provincialising imperative, which is marked by two key features that determine the shape of our urban everyday: architectural indifference and time warfare (Kumar 2013). Oye Lucky features a charming burglar as a protagonist who grew up in a West Delhi suburb. Lucky is irrationally and insatiably drawn towards affluent neighbourhoods and objects of wealth. He is in a perpetual hurry not to get somewhere but to leave behind his lower middle-class upbringing. Kanglon ke ghar paida ho gaya hun main (I seem to have taken birth in a family of paupers), he declares once, on the edge of a city rapidly accumulating wealth. Via Lucky, the film presents a biography of rapid wealth accumulation in the National Capital Region. While Lucky, the suburban boy, might be grabbing objects for pleasure in posh neighbourhoods, the city itself was plundering “provincial” wealth by expanding into lands bought at throwaway prices for farmhouses and suchlike.

At one point in the film, Gogi, a small-time performer and racketeer, abuses his manager, complaining about accepting a show on a highway farmhouse, while the crowd is going wild on account of the delay in the appearance of a female dancer. The dancer belongs to a lower middle-class family from a northern suburb, speaks broken English with a thick accent, and ends up marrying a non-resident Indian to immigrate to Canada. Lucky also shows off his driving skills on a half-built highway in the outskirts of the city. His love for automobiles, which runs through the film, is also symbolic of the heady cocktail of infrastructure, mobility, capital and real estate. Oye Lucky stages the intended or unintended processes by which the city expands way beyond its municipal territory, and unleashes a variety of means without an identifiable end, of which one is the trajectory that Lucky takes. Events, properties, automobiles and business transactions are all multiplying around him, and Lucky is too skilled to remain a mute bystander.

Another film that revisits the social-mobility text from the classical side would be Raees (2017). A period film about prohibition set in the 1960s–1990s Gujarat, Raees is caught in an over-stylised delirium between the smuggler–gangsters of the 1970s and the relatively outdoorsy and gritty gangster cinema of the 1990s. The text is borrowed from the former period and the formal expanse from the latter, but the film is deeply overshadowed by the imperatives of star iconography of an actor terribly out of step in an action film. Rehabilitated from the dated romantic melodramas of upper-class Punjabi non-resident Indians into the urban slums, the struggling erstwhile star refashioned himself into a working-class hero to use the narrative ladder of social mobility to rise through the ranks, as it were.

To lend more credence to the pursuit, Raees foregrounds its communal harmony politics baked in the mercantilist rationality of “free” trade. In this case, the city is a haphazard blend of bazaar and festive spaces that the protagonist cuts across, animatedly gesticulating and ventriloquising over mundane affairs, broadly constituted by two attributes I have termed “animated visuality” and “sovereignty effect” (Kumar 2017). The landscape of a social-mobility text is therefore repurposed for the caricatured and messianic agency of a star without much star power. The social-mobility text is more a vehicle of the star’s own aspirations at the time of his rapidly waning power over the market, and less an actual attempt at reframing the navigation of class and community barriers.

Contrary to the spectacular, loud and restless narrative style of Raees and Gully Boy (2019) sincerely deliberates over existing class conflict, while also gradually bringing that broad conflict down to the individual desire for social mobility. For a curious parallel, one may recall the rape-revenge films of the 1980s, in which rape was the price professionally successful female characters had to pay in order to take over as violent protagonists who could avenge themselves (Gopalan 1997). Similarly, in Gully Boy, the submission to a reality-television aesthetic is the price the political aesthetic must pay to appear briefly in the foreground before retreating. Just as rape-revenge films threatened to destroy female bodies’ self-worth before regenerating them in an identifiably “masculine” mould, Murad’s televisual regeneration from a now-defunct aesthetic of the working-class claim for social mobility is of contemporary provenance. It is drawn from the fascination with attention metrics of social media, as if it offered a radical popular affordance—pure, immediate and unblemished by the constitutive optical manipulation of cinema.

The film features a slum-dwelling Muslim neighbourhood where subjects live amidst soul-crushing contrasts of upbringing, access and desires. The subjects breathe in the toxic air of inequality while mockingly positioning themselves on the map of their metropolis. They are not mere victims of a political arena, but deeply aware of the undercurrents that shape their lived reality. To that extent, their view of the city and the world is neither innocent, like Yasmin’s in Dhobi Ghat (2010), nor cynical as in Oye Lucky, nor is it saturated in the juvenile overenthusiasm of Raees. An acute self-awareness of the political cartography of the contemporary city marks Gully Boy, which finds in rap music an avenue by which everyday political contrasts precipitate in the aesthetics of protest.

However, the film simultaneously reassembles the non-linearity of class conflict into a linear narrative of social mobility. In the final act, ironing out the complexities, the triumph of an individual over his inherited condition is rehabilitated from its political dwelling. As a result, even as the film celebrates the triumph of Murad—the Gully Boy—the glittering makeover of his life underscores the only cinematic destination such a politics can be allowed in popular cinema. We rejoice in Murad’s success in exiting a world that we exit with him. We are overwhelmed by the thunderous applause his affected voice is rewarded with, and overlook how this appropriates the rage and agony he feels on behalf of his social condition. The problem remains the neo-liberal defacement of the film’s political orientation, by which I mean the film’s subsumption to the doctrine that David Harvey (2007) identifies in terms of the unquestionable ethical value of market exchange as the radar for all human action.

The Neo-liberal Mobility of Gully Boy

Living on the borders of legality, morality and aspiration, the film’s characters are shaped by the politics of the permissible, whether in terms of class conditioning, gendered mobility or livelihood choices. Through their melancholic and enthusiastic overtures, we grow increasingly aware of the politics of urban settlements, sexual unfreedom, joblessness and class-based ceilings. For example, one could think of the sequence in which Murad makes sense of his growing intimacy with an upper-class Indian American girl, Sky. He makes sense of her lifeworld on his first visit to her apartment—the flawless tidiness of objects, the expanse, and the multiplicative reflections. Gradually, he comes to recognise Sky as not just a person, but also the representative of a class, with which he shares no common ground. The delicate tone of wonder, amusement and pathos with which he registers, Acchha upar bhi hai! (Oh, there is more upstairs!), is one of the most enduring triumphs of the film.

Such a reconciliation is triggered by Murad’s moment of reckoning for Safeena, his long-time girlfriend from a middle-class Muslim family. Most remarkably, he retreats from a tender moment between him and Sky declaring that living without Safeena, for him, would be like having grown up without a childhood. This profound rendering of the depth of his relationship not only establishes their bond as the pre-eminent anchor of his life, but also acknowledges that they share more than an interpersonal bond. The relatively contiguous corridors through which they walk may be divided by their class-specific upbringing, but they remain connected by the shared ethos of a conservative upbringing. Both Murad and Safeena walk in and out of this ethos, tentatively stepping into the “free” world of glitter and glamour, only to take cognisance of their place in that world and to promise to return with a firmer resolve.

This in-between subjectivity, suspended between polarities and struggling with its submissive in-transit docility, is best symbolised at Murad’s father’s second wedding ceremony, where the soundtrack switches between the rhythms of rap music playing on his earphones and the shehnai playing as the sound of a sacral ritual, or in the fact that Murad writes in Urdu in the Roman script. Safeena is also adept at using her hijab to step outside the world of desire and freedom. On multiple occasions, she switches between an aggressive and assertive individual and an obedient woman from a Muslim family, by wrapping the hijab around. Both of them live on the fringes, scratching the boundaries they identify and wish to break out of. Safeena is confident of her bright future, while Murad is partly resigned to his fate, and only eventually comes to acknowledge his talent, which he self-identifies as a tohfa (gift). Their romantic track, however, sits orthogonal to this narrative of social mobility, intercutting as it recalibrates their individual positions vis-à-vis their place in the social hierarchy.

The key site to which the romantic track returns occasionally is a bridge from where their paths depart every day. The bridge is built over what might have earlier been a nullah but is now a sludge filled with dry waste, mainly plastic. This gulf of trash that separates the protagonists’ neighbourhoods and ends their day of togetherness is, after all, not dissimilar to how it begins—in the public transport bus where they claim their romantic intimacy in the midst of an unforgiving and wasteful grind that marks life in the metropolis. The city is represented here in its flows and horizons, intimacies intended or unintended, and the mountains of waste engulfed in light or darkness. Mounted on such bridges and buses that promise social mobility, we witness Murad’s discomfort with the abusive world he is trapped in. It is to this discomfort that rap music renders a voice. But, of course, the trajectory of his aspiration is contested on account of its precarious character.

While Murad is gradually convinced of his worth as a performer, both his parents try to admonish him against such “momentary” distractions, which would not alter the fundamental truths of life as they see them. Murad challenges this belief in their truth, which looms large over their agonising lives, by pointing to the joy his music offers to him and his followers. Iska kuchh matlab hai! (There is some meaning in this!)—he says—in a scene starkly reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been somebody” in On the Waterfront (1954). Brando’s character, Terry, is forced to lose a fight he could win, but Murad is asked to quit fighting altogether, it appears. The agonising struggle to articulate the pride and meaning one searches for, in a life pushed to the margins of respectability, is what brings Gully Boy together with one of the finest films on class conflict, refracted via an icon sitting on the edge shared between the individual and the community.

While both the sporting bout of a boxing match and rap music are “spectator sports” that symbolise a higher battle for self-worth in trying circumstances, they are also separated by their ultimate horizon. In its final act, Murad is appropriated by the show business, just as the film itself is appropriated by the cross-promotional dynamics of reality television. Unlike Terry, who fights to reclaim his rightful workplace, Murad seeks the uncertain freedoms of the neo-liberal variety, hopelessly celebrated by numerous films, such as Tamasha (2015) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016). The kernel of this triumph is established in a false binary between the desk job and relentless self-promotion towards “fractal celebrity” (Beller 2016; Kumar 2018). The false binary allows the film to create a false value in neo-liberal freedoms, which become the barometer of social mobility the film celebrates.

Deviance, Risks and Suffering in Neo-liberalism

What do such neo-liberal freedoms mean? The freedom from work, instead of the freedom to work, is a sign of our peculiar aesthetic morphology of livelihoods. The freedom to be unsure, tentative and confused is celebrated in numerous film texts as a prerequisite to commitment—as if to “fool around” is the necessary condition for settling down. Freedoms of the neo-liberal world, therefore, try to wed the moralism of traditional “choiceless” commitments with the excesses of modern capitalism. The idea is to reach the same conservative destination, but without “missing out” on the pleasures of excess. To the extent that the star is a morphological construct saturated with the fantasies of capital, their eventual submission to a conservative, moralist thesis must take the long-winded route so as to sufficiently celebrate the freedom to “deviate.” In this neo-liberal imaginary, deviance is proportional to risk-taking, which, in the language of finance capitalism, translates to the debt-carrying capacity (Ascher 2016). A salaried desk job, quite obviously, does not ensure full participation in the neo-liberal freedoms to speculate and gamble on all sorts of valuations, most of all, one’s own self-worth.

On the other hand, a parallel rise in the media economy has been that of the reality-television aesthetic. Reality television brought together the possibility to miniaturise, while intimately rendering a candid studio space with its own enthusiastic “mass audience.” The aesthetic invigorated the very idea of television, which was thought to address a comparatively dull and distracted audience that could only glance, instead of possessing the gaze of the immobilised film audience in a darkened theatre (Ellis 1982). The emotionally “active” studio audience would therefore become an indexical representation of the anonymous masses, compensating for television’s fundamental lack against cinema. The newfound relative parity made reality television commensurate with cinema, significantly enough for film stars to perform their prolonged promotional bids on various reality shows. Ever since 2004—approximately after the first season of the popular music show Indian Idol—cinema has drawn its cues for the mass audience from television, most notably in Rang De Basanti (2006) and PK (2014).

This revised kernel of projecting the star as a champion of the public cause or crowd-entertainment now has the television firmly stationed in the middle of the arena. To that extent, we must take another look at Gully Boy via what Anna McCarthy (2007) calls the “neo-liberal theater of suffering” the key characteristic of reality television. Murad’s journey from Dharavi to the rap music championship studio then becomes a mere backstory of suffering—the kind of quick summary montage that has become commonplace on Indian reality television, particularly in Kaun Banega Crorepati and Satyamev Jayate (Kumar 2014).

Seen this way, a sophisticated reflection on class- and community-based inequities is repurposed to add yet another chapter to the book of neo-liberal mobilities, akin to “financial inclusion” via “free basics” and ride-sharing apps. One would imagine Murad adding the Dharavi flavour to exoticising Mumbai in his rap when not singing the anthems of social mobility, such as Apna time aayega (My time will come). The issue is not so much of the choice of profession, but that of tethering one’s self-worth to the metrics of raucous popularity. Having probed the social construction of the protagonist’s self-worth for most of the duration, Gully Boy deceives us and undermines itself by eventually surrendering to an idea of the “neo-liberal popular” determined by the attention economy of subscribers, likes and shares (Kumar 2018).

The Language Question

On the whole, the true protagonist of Gully Boy is the linguistic community of Mumbai subalterns, whose rebellion against their political inexistence—“a case of unfreedom arising from a linguistic disorder” (Prasad 2014: 93)—is registered in not just rap music, but also how it is provincialised in Mumbaiyya swagger. The treatment of Mumbai slang in Gully Boy is worthy of highest appreciation since it is not merely deployed for garnishing and occasional grandstanding. Instead, the film displays sublime felicity with the slang even for the tender moments. Regardless of the film’s other failures, therefore, its ability to cognise language as the pre-eminent basis of community is a substantial triumph.

Among the social-mobility film texts mentioned earlier, only Oye Lucky registers such a pre-eminence. While we have witnessed some extraordinarily sensitive linguistic nuances emerge in the last decade, very few have been able to stage the contradictions, discomforts and alienation embedded in the linguistic experience of a metropolis as vast and diverse as Mumbai. The interpenetration of Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Deccani not only further nuances the urban-provincial sensibility once inaugurated by Satya (1998), it invites us to reimagine the city in terms of a spectrum of linguistic orientations. Murad’s Urdu-inflected Deccani leaves a peculiar imprint on the film and summons us to attend to the distinction it claims from a generic slang.

Herein lies a key distinction between the classical social- mobility text and Gully Boy. Two films separated by almost four decades—Shree 420 (1955) and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman—are remarkably similar in their treatment of the subject. An “outsider” arrives in Mumbai to make a decent living, is poisoned and cursed by “dirty” ambition, leading to a public scam before coming clean in full public view, to redeem himself. The key overlap is at the end where both the protagonists attempt to leave Mumbai, as if to declare that much of the blame for their own corruptibility lies in the immoral character of the city, before conceding that there may yet be pockets barricaded by a community-specific ethic to stay back for. What binds the community the protagonists finally choose is not just their modest means but their moral resolution. That is a window unavailable to Murad in Gully Boy. His parents are in a crushingly abusive relationship ratified by his grandmother who approves of the domestic violence. His friends deal in drugs, carjack and engage in numerous petty crimes. The walls that separate Dharavi from its employers are not made of moral steel, to say the least.

It is language and the performative solidarity of their collective consciousness that the invisible walls are built of. This is most evident where the film cuts between a training module at Murad’s engineering firm and a rap session with his team of artists. One is an avenue for social mobility Murad resents and the other he aspires for. They are not merely separated by his choice, as the film nudges us to concede, but also by the linguistic community he belongs to. Unlike the Rajus in both Shree 420 and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Murad cannot simply walk in and out of enclosures and tiers on account of “native” accomplices. Linguistic felicity and enthusiasm in Gully Boy represent an entire sensibility, a state of being, beyond which there is acute discomfort and alienation that Murad perpetually struggles to reconcile with. It is an index of the warmth he shares with Safeena, Sher or his other friends, as also of the alienation he gradually learns to reconcile with through his music.

The language in Gully Boy is not merely the cache of social relations, but also an eminent source of nourishment. The triumph of the film is in highlighting how much the linguistic intimacy means to Murad in particular, and to the felicity that rap music essentially demands in general. Through most of the film, Murad cuts back and forth between alienation/abuse and intimacy/empathy, the pre-eminent index of which are linguistic registers. His rap music is born out of these contradictions and emotional fatigue; it lets him avail of an in-between language, and through that, of an in-between performative subjectivity. While the subsumption to neo-liberal environs is quite evident, the film also invites us—against its own axis of narrative progression—to wonder if Murad’s quest would really end with an early infatuation with the attention economy. In a key confrontation with his father who admonishes him against the same, Murad says, Logon ko farq padta hai isse … Iska qadar hai, mera qadar hai! (This matters to people … this has some value, I have some value.) But at the same time, there is enough evidence within the film for us to wonder if Murad would not realise, sooner or later, that popular investment in a media artefact is too fragile a thing to tether one’s self-worth to.

Between Money and Capital

Among the films we have discussed, Oye Lucky best documents some of the key characteristics of the cinema-city organism prior to the neo-liberal takeover. Lucky deals in cash and cars; he physically carries unwieldy objects of wealth, like the stereo system. The film also breaks new ground by mockingly accepting a whole variety of provincial globalisms that contemporary New Delhi is grappling with. The promise of social mobility the film stages is propelled as much by the unintended outcomes of wealth accumulation as by the intended ones. In Gully Boy, however, the divide between intended and unintended trajectories of urban redevelopment are differentially arranged. The underground rap sessions and above-ground rap championships are fundamentally distinct realms of activity. The contempt Murad’s father, a car driver for an elite family, has for Murad’s music videos is indicative of a deeper divide between the attention economy and its predecessors.

To qualify for neo-liberal cool, to cross the aspirational threshold, work must not look like actual work; it should instead appear in the stylised forms of “free choice.” Most curiously, for example, we know that when Murad goes through a difficult time, he lives off carjacking while working in his friend Moeen’s garage. Yet, the film treats the sequence like a footnote, rushing us through actual work with heavy, unwieldy objects of wage labour. In fact, Moeen is particularly hurt when Murad asks for work in the interim period before he could find something “adequate,” promptly responding, Kyun? Ye dhang ka nahi hai kya? (Why? Is this not adequate?). While the scene gives us a jolt about the dignity of work, the film is unflinchingly propelled by a fascination for the celebrity aesthetics of the attention economy.

While the neo-liberal renderings of wage employment may not eliminate hard labour, they continue to try and quarantine it. The media, via the neo-liberal undergrowth within the cinema-city organism, has largely become an ally in that quarantining project that rushes over or drowns out the “boring bits” of labour’s materiality. In a certain sense, Lucky, Raees or
Murad could be thought of as period-specific and site-specific instances of the same character, however different the cinematic treatment meted out to each of them may be. Their journey to popularity—whether in terms of political power or merely to attest one’s self-worth—is navigated through a host of tentative entrepreneurial moves.

Regardless of their aspirations, means and talents, what the cinema-city organism draws out of them is determined by the character of capital’s contemporary toolkit. The mobility they are propelled by, however extraordinary it may be, is mandated to them by capital’s contingent reconfigurations of the cinema-city organism. Both Lucky and Raees are, however, tragic characters who walk across the premises of freedom, somewhat unwittingly, and are then cut down to size. Murad’s freedoms instead appear to be limitless in comparison, but therein lies Gully Boy’s false promise.

Going only by the evidence present within the film, Murad is able to enter the competition only because of his substantial partnership with Moeen’s two-faced business—motor garage by the day and carjacking and drug-smuggling by the night. In projecting its false binary between a desk job and the freedom to discover one’s true calling, Gully Boy may have expertly hidden this interim toolkit as well as its unwieldy materiality. The carjacking montage does not only make it look too easy, it hides from us how the stolen vehicles were transacted further, what the material form of money received was, and how it was stored away. As we know from Lucky’s story, there would be challenges in that segment that we can barely afford to submerge under the high-decibel anthem hailing the cinema-city organism.

To the extent that social mobility is tied to the material form of money, one way to unpack the aesthetics of social mobility is to engage with how they handle the spectre of actual money. The classic action films of the 1970s–1990s fetishised cash itself—in briefcases and trunks, apart from the gold biscuits—the social mobility they offered was fundamentally tethered to illicit means, outside the purview of market regulations. In one of the later instances, even the big-budget romance drama Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) stages the struggle of a millionaire’s heir protagonist in handling cash to prove his self-worth. Even the safest of the industry vehicles for social reproduction capital therefore deploys the money form to avail of the genuine credentials of social mobility.


Over the last two decades, proving one’s self-worth against the traditional wisdom and systems of evaluation is increasingly tethered to a more direct and immediate manifestation of popularity. Candle light vigils, mass protestations, and various “extra-curricular” performances variously render the arena of reality shows, where the optics of popularity keenly harvest manifest public feedback to index the popularity metrics of the box office. Such televisual affordances increasingly mandate that the popular aesthetics attest to the protagonists’ valuations prior to the enunciation of the verdict. This is partly about the increasing interdependence of the film and television economies, and partly about media’s increasing reliance on advertising capital, for which its claims to popularity must be based on a tangible promotional calculus (Kumar 2020).

Where do they leave the optics of the cinema-city organism? The classic texts of social mobility over the 20th century maintained the distinction between money and capital, which has now fallen through. Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty (2005) argue that finance capitalism, particularly derivatives, has falsified the conventional distinction, leaving no separation between a “real” economy of values and epiphenomenal financial markets. The money form was key to the optics of cinema-city organism, whether in Shree 420 or Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, to illustrate what it feeds on and to slip a warning in the midst of an elaborately mounted and furious but deranged fetish.

In this century, however, even though capital has made the money form redundant, it expertly hides behind the noisy indices of popularity metrics, illustrating the cashless variants of value-productive transactions. As the pre-eminent component of the attention economy, in which attention could be reliably monetised, the cinema-city organism was always key to capital’s ability to harvest attention (Beller 2006). In the age of computational capital (Beller 2016), however, digital wallets, online transfers, and a variety of metrics traded across the platform economy have aided capital’s apparent algorithmic neutrality. Gully Boy leaves Murad at the doorsteps of computational capital, absorbed in the optics of attention but entirely unaware of the algorithmic governance of social media platforms. It therefore reveals the optical blind spot of the outdated cinema-city organism in the age of logistically compacted “smart” organisms of computational capital. Murad can barely prevail over the smart futures contract he has bought, without an inkling about its attendant risks.


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Beller, Jonathan (2006): The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press.

— (2016): “Informatic Labor in the Age of Computational Capital,” Lateral, Vol 5, No 1,

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Updated On : 4th Aug, 2020


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