How both the film industry and the business world can be influenced by each other in their workings
For a column that was born out of an offhand conversation and a simple one line brief, churning out 20-odd articles over a course of time should be pretty satisfying, but I still can’t help avoid the gnawing question of how qualified I am to be writing these monthly columns in the first place. I can call myself a movie buff but that’s as commonplace as calling yourself a photography enthusiast these days, and moreover I hardly know enough about the intricacies of filmmaking to be offering insightful perspectives on the movie I am writing about. Also, there isn’t anything earth-shattering about the business lessons I usually try to infer from them. But then, when I think about it a bit, sometimes being unqualified is actually an asset and a naive or, to be more accurate, ignorant viewpoint can bring in a perspective that was always there but never seen. And an unbiased observer with no preconceptions and a layman’s knowledge can raise questions that might be simplistic but the answers to which necessarily need not. A friend calls me extremely defensive of my writing and this opening paragraph might seem an affirmation of that, but more than being a defence, I see it as setting context for what this column is really about.
The story so far
If I were to do a retrospective on what I have written so far, I should definitely start with a hat tip to Jason Reitman – a couple of his movies, Thank you for smoking and Up in the air were featured in this column, for having protagonists with such interesting and unconventional careers. A lobbyist for the tobacco industry in the former movie and a professional downsizer in the latter, and the questions of morality that their jobs raise surely make for meaty discussions. I think the topic of career choices is interesting in itself and while there are movies like Udaan that are completely grounded in reality with the perfect mix of the bleak and the hopeful that beautifully exhort the need to follow your dreams and picking the choices that make you happy, there are also movies like 3 Idiots that do the same using a gigantic pair of rose-tinted glasses, portraying everyone who chooses an occupation off the beaten track to be wildly successful with nary a hint of a struggle. I think my obvious bias against the latter movie has less to do with its deficiencies and more to do with the fact that it stole the thunder from Rocket Singh – Salesman of the year, which is inarguably my favourite when it comes to movies I have written about here.
Though I wrote about Rocket Singh in the context of professional integrity, corruption and kickbacks in the corporate world, I think it does an almost perfect job of capturing the essence of true entrepreneurial spirit. The protagonist is an academic under achiever, who eyes a wonderful business opportunity, and goes on to a build a much respected brand through sheer hard work, uncompromised quality and service that manages to threaten a big unscrupulous corporate. Coming in at a close second in the running for the quintessential entrepreneur movie is Band Baaja Baaraat, which emphasises the importance of sound business relationships with customers as well as partners and how it can be an essential differentiator for a successful company. In Indian cinema, where the portrayal of entrepreneurship has traditionally been restricted to a magical, meteoric rags-to-riches rise in a musical montage, these two films have a rare honesty in how they show the struggles – big and small, the highs of the first contract or the first sales, the joy of the big lucky break, the pitfalls and the sinkholes of growth to watch out for.
I have also had the opportunity to write about the biographical depictions in films of some iconic men like Steve Jobs (Pirates of Silicon Valley) and some not yet iconic men like Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) – men who have made and are making their mark in the business landscape. Both films, contrary to expectations, were hardly what you would call inspirational but were very realistic in their approach and focused on facets of these men that are not often seen in other media. The prominent takeaway for me was the revaluation of the true worth of an idea. Coming up with a truly original, path breaking business idea is only winning half the battle. What matters really is how you run with that idea, how you package it, present it, market it and make it reach a place where it seemed like it never would. The more I look at successful startups and businesses, the more I tend to believe that anyone can probably have a bright idea, but only a few have the ability to really understand its potential and shape it into a tangible success.
The movie business
In a country which is obsessed with its cinema, it is not too much of a stretch to look to it to be inspired as much as to be entertained. This column has been but a natural extension of that obsession and all it aims to do is to ask if the way we do business can be influenced by the movies that we love so much. At the same time, it is not hard to see that this is very much a two-way street and the film industry has equally been influenced by the way we do business. Some might call that the bastardisation of art, where box office numbers and commercial success has begun to taint what a filmmaker really sets out to say but I can’t help but find that a little incongruous. Behind all the glitz and glamour there is something that constitutes the latter component of the phrase ‘film industry’. There are set boys, light men, make-up artists, costume makers, stuntmen, extras and a seemingly endless list of others with mouths to feed, mortgages to pay, the next day’s work to look out for and daily wages to be eked out. Filmmaking has always involved big investments and bigger stakes, and to be dreamy eyed and view it as just another art form is practically impossible. That’s probably why they say there is no business like show business and that’s definitely why this column attempts to know business from show business.