My DNA Column on the 5th of September
What is Money ? We know what it is when we see it. We know its lack when we don’t have it. We know its drop in value when we go to the market and come back with the half the goods we got last year. But money in itself, unless you are a miserly hoarder of it, has no intrinsic value.Its value comes from what the government assigns to it or what people believe it to have. The reason gold has value is not because it is valuable in itself; rather it is valuable because people and institutions believe it to be valuable.
Today, we know that money has lost value because of the things we cannot buy with the money we have. When we look at a home our parents purchased for under Rs5 lakhs a fortune in those days and that house costs upwards of a few crores.We know it when we go to the market, and onions that used to cost Rs12-a-kilo a few months ago, cost five time that. It is when the education we had, for a few hundred rupees a couple of decades ago, costs a few lakhs. The biggest impact of inflation is the loss in value of money.Inflation impacts not just our today, but also our tomorrows.
If you want to know how much the value of money has changed in the years since Independence, there is no better indicator of it than Bollywood. The era immediately after Independence reflected the hope and decency that people possibly saw. Money was not as important as family, values, friendship, and loyalty were. If at all money was referred,it was a need, not an overwhelming drive. The 1950s was an era where people prayed to God for a Sava Lakh ki lottery (Chori Chori). By the 1980s this had become 11 lakhs of bounty (various state lotteries). Today lottery prizes are upwards of a crore. A leading gameshow that offered a crore as prize money a decade ago, is offering seven times that much in today’s market. Back to the 1950s, Kishore Kumar playing a car mechanic could fix a broken-down car for Rs5.75, in the incredibly hilarious Chalti ka Naam Gaadi.Today, even servicing the car costs much more than that.But money was not always about irreverence or fun. Sometimes the lack of it was the difference between life and death or at least dispossession. Two films of that era that drove home this point were Do Bigha Zamin and Mother India. In the former, the main protagonist was the farmer Shambu, played by Balraj Sahani, who is about to lose his plot of land for a debt of Rs65, that has ballooned to an unmanageable Rs235 with compound interest, to the moneylender.The moneylender wants to use the do bigha zamin to put up a factory. Shambu goes to the big city to earn money to pay off his debt, but is unsuccessful. In a way, the issues remain the same what has changed is the price tag. In Mother India, the debt borne by Radha (Nargis) and Shamu (Raj Kumar) is a crippling Rs500. Radha works hard to pay off this debt and bring up her children well. Both these films resonated with the audience and got the cash registers ringing.
In the 1960s, the value of money, and the values associated with money both changed. The world became darker. Heroes became greyer. The turn of the decade saw the famous Dev Anand-starrer Kala Bazaar, where the hero is a black marketeer. Dev Anand steals Rs3,000 to start a business in black marketing movie tickets.The movie for which he is selling tickets in black is Mother India a two-rupee ticket that goes for a princely Rs50. In today’s India, there are few films that need tickets in black. Supply of films is everywhere and the scarcity caused by restricting screenings to a few theatres is gone. A few years later, Shammi Kapoor as Pritam Khanna, in the film Professor, is battling with his mother’s tuberculosis.It was an era where a sanatorium was considered to be the ideal treatment for TB (today someone with TB is treated as an outpatient). He pawns a counterpane for Rs5, and then fakes his age to get a job. Then, as now, jobs were at a premium.
A decade later, in the 1970s, Bollywood depicted mothers who sent their children to bed, using the threat of a dreaded dacoit (Gabbar Singh) who had a bounty of Rs50,000 on his head.A few years ago, students watching this film, in Mumbai, laughed out loud at the famous “poore pachaas hazaar” line, a clear indicator of how the value of money had changed. In another famous film from the 1970s Vijay Kumar (played by Amitabh Bachchan) in Trishul buys a plot of land in Model Town Delhi for Rs5 lakh and starts his own construction empire. That land, in today’s terms, would be worth crores. There is, of course, the famous Deewar, where neither a bungalow nor cars, nor fame, would be equal to the respect that the hero has in his mother’s eyes. But, that was a different time.
In the last two decades, the loss in value of money is reflected in Bollywood too. Tens have no value. Hundreds have been replaced with tens of thousands; a lakhpati is a common man, a crorepati is middle-class. It is those with hundreds of crores (if not thousands) who are classified as rich. And, if that doesn’t tell you about inflation, nothing will.
Money makes the world go around, go the lyrics to a famous song. But money that made the world go around yesterday is no longer enough today. And, that really is the crux of inflation.