June 26, 2010

Only in India: The curious case of Ash-envy

By Chetan Bhagat

The recent release of Mani Ratnam’s Raavan and the subsequent response to the film has dominated headlines. I am no trade expert or film critic and reports show the film performed below box-office expectations. It didn’t earn much critical praise either. This is not the first time this has happened. Last month, Hrithik Roshan’s Kites met the same fate. A big film with big stars and huge expectations — but ultimately, sub-par performance. Heartbreaking though it may be for filmmakers and actors, but the finality of audience verdict is a brutal aspect of show business.

Even so, in the case of Raavan, the media tended to be more vicious than usual. It almost seemed as if there were great joy in seeing the movie fail. There may be several reasons for this, not least the actual quality of the film. But one possible reason could be Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s presence. From her choice of clothes at events to her film's performance — one misstep and venom spews out in barrels.

Throughout her career, the media has painted Aishwarya as ‘plastic’, an ‘ice-maiden’, ‘wooden’, ‘artificial’ and a ‘non-actress’. This, despite the fact that she has acted in more than 40 films in Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. She entered the industry as an outsider, without a godfather. Today her face is more recognized globally than any other Indian actor. If she is on TV, people don’t seem able to change channel. To top it all, she has transitioned into marriage with her fame largely untouched.

And yet, you will rarely find people accepting, let alone recognizing her success. Why? Why do we, deep down, harbour resentment of our most successful people? Why do we want them to fail? It’s that ugly word: envy. We know it is rampant in our society. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan isn’t alone. Shashi Tharoor is another example. A fast-rising, first-generation politician, Tharoor was subjected to far greater scrutiny than entrenched politicos, and ultimately made to suffer for it. And, of course, there are several less well-known rising stars pulled down in organizations every day.

Ash is just an easy reference to address the broader issue of Indian envy. We must learn to deal with this if we want to move from our current feudal society to a talent-driven one. Envy is the pain or frustration caused by another person who has something that one does not. In Aishwarya’s case, it could be her looks, her rise to one of the most famous people in the world, her wealth, the opportunities she gets, or the illusion that she must have a happier life than the rest of us. Her rise is rapid and more important, atypical of the Indian way. In India, only children of the rich, famous and powerful become rich, famous and powerful. We find it perfectly normal for children with such a pedigree to have a sense of entitlement. Starkids, politicokids, businesskids — all are seen as highly aspirational. First-generation climbers are seen as crass, undeserving and subject to harder hurdles before they can earn their place in the sun. In the US, Britney Spears became a household name in her teens despite her modest background. She became famous because of her talent for popular music. Something like this would almost never happen in India (unless she is the daughter of someone famous). We can’t accept, reward or frankly, deal with talent. Centuries of oppressive class and caste-based rules have made us this way. Stay in your place, make incremental rises, but don’t rock the boat. It’s a classic feudal setup and it’s unfair but it works. It maintains stability in an otherwise complex society.

This must change. The Indian way of rewarding the already rewarded isn’t the most efficient way to tap an individual or society’s fully potential. At the individual level, an envy-ridden person finds it difficult to be happy or achieve much. As India changes, we may find that the younger generation has bigger dreams and bigger achievements. These need to be celebrated and they will inspire thousands of others. If we continually want to see self-made, fast-rising, successful Indians fail, it only means we don’t want our young generation to achieve great things.

The current system doesn’t maximize a society’s output either. At a macro level, when only the rich are supposed to get richer, there is less incentive to innovate, persevere or be creative. Protectionism and the government-business nexus is enough to protect the wealthy and that’s exactly what happens.

We must decide to give up on envy if we want India to change. People’s success should inspire rather than make us unhappy. If they falter because they’re human, we shouldn’t take vicarious pleasure in it. Don’t have Ash-envy, be Ash-inspired. This isn’t a new concept. In Buddhism, one of the divine principles is ‘mudita’ — taking joy in the good fortune of other. We need it in India, now more than ever, when we will begin to see lots of ordinary people rising in various fields. Lend them a hand, don’t pull them down. There’s enough for everyone. Fast achievers are not rocking the boat, they are the people who are saying this boat is outdated and let’s move to a nicer, better ship. Are you onboard?