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Interview as performance and the spectre of unemployment

Uttaran Das Gupta/ 13 Oct 17 | 05:54 PM

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According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, released earlier this week, urban Indian unemployment had climbed to 8.2 per cent of the labour force — an 11-month high. Since the disastrous demonetisation in November last year, labour participation in the market has increased, but jobs are scarce. Mahesh Vyas of CMIE writes: “The rise in labour participation rate and the unemployment rate shows that labour is returning back to the labour markets but, it isn’t finding jobs." He adds tracking unemployment over the past year and a half has been a “tumultuous experience", with major expansions and contractions.

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Lack of jobs, however, does not seem like such a bad thing to the government. At the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit last Thursday, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said lack of jobs implied more and more young people were looking to become entrepreneurs. He was responding to Bharti Airtel Chairman Sunil Mittal’s concern that India’s top 200 companies had made significant reductions in their workforce in the past few years.  “If these top 200 companies are not going to generate jobs, it’s going to get harder and harder for the whole business community to pull society along with it," Mittal said.

Goyal demurred: “Can I just add a little bit just to change the perspective from what Sunil had mentioned?… What Sunil just spoke about companies bringing down their employment is a very good sign, in fact. The fact [is] that today, the youth of tomorrow is not looking to be a job seeker alone. He wants to be a job creator. The country today is seeing more and more young people wanting to be entrepreneurs." What leap of logic the railway minister used to arrive at this conclusion is anyone’s guess, but the disastrous effect of joblessness on young people would be evident to anyone re-watching some movies as I have been in my column over the past few weeks.

Last week, I had ended the discussion with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal (1979), and the extent to which its protagonist Ram Prasad Sharma (Amol Palekar) goes to secure a job. Being a comedy, the Gol Maal allows its characters a wide berth: Sharma has two able guides — Doctor Mama (David) and Deven (Deven Varma playing himself) — to negotiate the treacherous landscape of interviews and love, with considerable success. Central to Gol Maal’s is the hilarious interview scene, where Sharma must play a character completely contrary to himself to impress the obnoxiously uncompromising Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt). With its frequent references to the make believe world of cinema, the film and the interview scene are all about performances. Yet, that’s where the problem lies: In job interviews being performances to please the recruiter, not judge the merit of the candidate.

Critiquing the demeaning performance essential to job interviews in a shrinking job market, Mrinal Sen released Interview in 1971. The narrative of the film, which spans a day, follows the central character Ranju (Ranjit Mallick) — a twenty something — as he prepares for a job interview with a British firm. Early in the film, he tells his mother that he is quite confident of getting the job, as he has a recommendation from his dead father’s friend. Only, he needs to get a suit. That, too, shouldn’t be a problem, because he has one, which he has given for dry cleaning. But things don’t go quite according to plan. The laundry workers are on a strike, so Ranju can’t pick up his suit. He acquires another from a friend, but that gets stolen. Finally, he is forced to go to the interview wearing a dhoti-kurta.

This obsession with right attire — also the site of Ranju’s existential crisis — is intrinsic to the performance of the interview. Wearing a smart suit will not make him anymore British than wearing a kurta-pyjama makes Ram Prasad Sharma sanskari. Even as he roams around searching for a suit, we become aware that he doesn’t know how to knot a tie, doesn’t have a good pair of socks, and his shoes have been packed away in a trunk by his mother because he never wears them. His mother (Karuna Banerjee) reminds him that he is a Bengali and a dhoti-kurta is his most appropriate attire, but he the disastrous consequence of wearing it to the interview.

The actual interview scene in the movie was shot at the IBM offices in Calcutta, with executives of the multinational firm’s interview board playing themselves. Somak Mukherjee, in his essay “Infernal Encounters: Streets and Interpretation in Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy", reminds us that the American corporate giant still had vibrant presence in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1971, even in the midst of Naxalite violence and influx of refugees from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Ranju does not get the job, specifically because of what he has worn to the interview. In a delightful reference to another iconic interview scene in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), Ranju is asked: “What is the biggest event of the decade?" Unlike Pratidwandi’s Siddhartha, who says “The Vietnam War", Ranju replies: “My interview, Sir!"

This might seem funny, quirky — but actually it is not. For a young person seeking a job, nothing is more important that the interview. Especially, in a market, where the number of jobs in falling, like it is in India at present. Joblessness manifests itself in social unrest. Ray’s Seemabaddha — released the same year as Interview — begins with a shot of jobseekers crowding in front of the employment exchange in Calcutta, and a voiceover narrative by the protagonist, Shyamal, who says, “The number of educated jobless youth in Bengal is 100,000... Many feel all other problems of Bengal have their source in this problem." Perhaps the government would be well advised to deal with it now before it multiplies like Suresh Prabhu’s syllogism.

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