The Capitalist Theatre
An annual shareholders meeting may not sound like a place for a bollywood denouement, but these corporate gatherings are as rife with tragedy as they are with farce.
Indian films strive for closure. In fact the single most important driving force that powers the narrative in most Indian films is the satisfactory closure of gaping wounds, wounded pride, injustice or vendetta.
Our films may navigate increasingly complex and original ways of achieving this closure. But in the end most of them achieve this through some age-old final-reel tropes. The climactic clash between the forces of good – the outnumbered hero – and the forces of evil – the bad guy and his hordes – is a popular one. The union of cleaved lovers, often involving trains, is canon. Family movies usually feature a reunified, joyous household pardoning the most heinous relatives who, moments earlier, were plotting their wholesale slaughter.
Mani Ratnam’s 2007 feature film Guru, however, ends with the most unique setting for a closing scene of any Indian film: an Annual General Meeting of shareholders.
This might seem like a bizarre choice of scenario. AGMs are a statutory requirement for companies listed on stock exchanges. In most countries in the world listed companies are required to hold at least one meeting a year where shareholders get a chance to vote on important company measures and approve annual statements of accounts.
These meetings can often be very important, highly charged and widely reported in the media. But how can they ever be interesting enough to serve as the closing act of a Bollywood blockbuster?
AGMs can be fun. But not Amitabh Bachchan or Anil Kapoor fun. Surely?
In fact it is a mystery that more blockbuster films don’t use AGMs in their plot. For when it comes to sheer theatricality some Indian AGMs can be every bit a work of performance art as Shahrukh Khan’s latest.
In the summer of 2006 I joined one of India’s grand old manufacturing companies as a consultant. Established well before India became an independent country, the company continues to be one of the best-known names in consumer electricals. Though these days it makes most of its money from industrial products like transformers. It has its headquarters in a shiny skyscraper in one of Mumbai’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
But inside it remains a quaintly old-fashioned company.
At the time I was struggling to make ends meet as a novelist – essentially an income-free profession – and hastily agreed to work for them part-time as part of a new business development team. The team consisted of two people. A vice president who thought big. And the consultant who translated these ideas into spreadsheets. It was a poorly thought-out project from the outset and no one was particularly surprised when it was shut down ten months later.
But in the interim I got paid handsomely, and used the money to get married.
One morning in July 2006, just a few months after we started work on our ill-fated project, I noticed an army of unfamiliar faces trooping in and out of our offices in the head office tower.
This was most rare. The offices mostly housed departments that had nearly nothing to do with the outside world: accounts, legal, corporate HR, statutory and reporting, insider trading, etc. Nobody visited us, not even employees from other departments.
Yet suddenly here was an eccentric group of old men and middle-aged women all lining up to meet the company secretary. Some of them needed help getting in and out of the lifts.
But this was not a company where you went around asking questions. Everything and everybody functioned on a need to know basis. If you needed to know you would know.
The next morning everyone received a directive from human resources. All employees were expected to attend the company’s AGM taking place that morning in the auditorium of a nearby school. Attendance was compulsory. Shuttle buses would be provided.
Outside the venue there was a confusing crowd of people. Schoolchildren bobbed in and out of the crowd trying to grab freebies like baseball caps, and snacks. Irritated employees coagulated into groups and promptly began to bitch about the waste of time. A few business journalists waited for the meeting to start.
But the most voluble group was the same army that had invaded our office the day before. They thronged around a side door, presumably the stage entrance, and made a terrible racket. Some were clearly having arguments.