In a scene right after being verbally abused by the owner of the firm he was recently drafted into, Ranbir Kapoor sits still on a sofa alongside his grandfather, staring pensively at the television. His puzzled grandpa quizzes him but he just sits there staring, saying nothing. With the brooding riffs of Salim-Sulaiman’s music in the background, Harpreet Singh Bedi , the idealist college graduate, has come of age in that very moment with a gut punch from the world outside.
As a more successful film released in the same year(2009), Ranbir’s Wake up Sid has often been celebrated as the quintessential ‘coming of age’ film in mainstreamBollywood over the last decade or so. In an industry that lusts for hyperbole drama, occupations and their mundane complexities never had enough ‘meat’ for storytelling. Even in a restrained ‘Swades’ the attempts of a NASA engineer to bring electricity to his village had to culminate with sparks of current flashing across transmission wires. Cubicles, chairs, desks, computers, stationery, printers, intercom telephone handsets were never the stuff dreams were made of. For countless working middle-class youth in this country though, that is what a bulk of their days and lives are made of. For them, Rocket Singh – Salesman of the Year was the coming of age film that probably never got its due.
Vague and oblique references to professions have never been lacking in Bollywood. While it has been replete with businessmen protagonists as owners of obscure companies, more specific mentions of vocations from the modern economy such as architects, designers, journalists, photographers, stock brokers, rock musicians, sporting heroes and even space scientists are increasingly being found in our films. This is a welcome departure from the abiding obsession with politicians, law enforcers and lawyers. But the standard, unglamorous office-goer – representative of millions in this country – has not found center stage commonly. Rocket Singh chooses to set the salesman – the dreary, quintessential common man’s profession – bang at the center of its drama and lays out the entire stage for him. If it hadn’t been so well-crafted, the film was worth lauding for this intent alone.
Work, as modern-day psychologists often quote, is a defining factor in shaping one’s self-concept. Getting ‘gainfully’ and‘meaningfully’ employed after coming out of college is nothing short of a rites-of-passage for scores of dreamy-eyed young men and women in this country.The doting grandfather’s gesture of buying a scooter from his PF to ceremonially send off his grandson on this journey was a wonderful depiction of that. But when the very concept of work is riddled with small, routine compromises to achieve career and organizational goals in the present-day industry, those hopeful young men and women are left with a fuddled self-concept. That disillusionment and the subsequent realization of fundamental values by the bumbling Harpreet Singh Bedi was a journey which was not only relatable for them but also something they secretly longed for. One couldn’t help but root for him when he sets out to pursue those values through his work and eventually outsmarts the person who had challenged those values in the first place. In a way, Rocket Singh was presciently indicating the start-up fever that was soon going to grip ambitious, free-thinking millenials frustrated with the way Old India was doing business.
This fact that this battle is showcased in the most unremarkable of places and with the most unlikeliest of people – sitting in office cubicles after office hours amidst abandoned cartons with the help of a porn-addicted computer hardware engineer, a world-weary front office executive handling discolored intercom handsets, a pantry operator and a smartass sales manager – is in itself a remarkable achievement in a Bollywood of that time which refused to see the magic in the mundane. The specifics were so well thought out in the film – tucking neckties into shirt pockets to avoid soiling them during lunches, alcohol being poured from mineral water dispensers and pirated soundtracks on Windows Media Player echoing from speakers during office parties – that you cannot help but recognize a genuine love of the common man and his milieu in the filmmaking. It all had to start, of course, with a script by Jaideep Sahni himself, the man behind the resurgence of the common man’s stories in mainstream Hindi cinema much before the hinterland stories had found their way into films today.
It is sad then that there was never a real buzz around Rocket Singh in discourse about meaningful commercial cinema on its release or thereafter. Maybe because of the numbers it made but perhaps also because such a David vs.Goliath story of triumph feels very improbable in today’s pragmatic world of work and business. Perhaps the values Harpreet Singh Bedi fought for were too old-fashioned and his triumph too good to be true. But there’s still some rush of blood felt by men and women who are probably approaching middle-age by now and still striving to change the game when Sunil Puri flips the coin and the gauntlet back to Harpreet with his final remark ‘See you in the field’.
And they get on with their attempts to redefine business and its ethos in their own small ways mumbling ‘Risk to Spiderman bhi leta hain, tut toh phir bhi salesman hain’.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.