“Not to Deny, Not to Defy, but to Define”

gully-boy_1547029867140The title of this piece is a quote from late Professor Pulin K. Garg (of IIM Ahmadabad) and refers to possible responses to systemic rigidity and oppression. I was reminded of it while watching “Gully Boy,” where I found the response of the protagonist as very refreshing- neither rooted in denial nor in defiance. Instead the protagonist chooses to pursue his own path.

I believe both denial and defiance are counterproductive.  Denial(non-recognition/engagement) leads to collusion and perpetuation of systemic inequities, and ironically, defiance leads to the same result- it can be easily dismissed as aberration or suppressed as disruptive. Meaningful transformation requires defining a new vision, a new path, which is not just a reactive response but embodies the hopes and dreams of the individual/collective.

The journey from denial to defiance to defining is complex and entails engagement with multiple aspects, particularly in respect of power and authority relations. Some of the shifts in the popular Hindi cinema can give us some clues to this process.

Till the emergence of the Angry Young Man in the 1970’s, most protagonists were in the denial mode- they were good sons and daughters, excelled in studies, did well in sports/extra curricular activities, chose respectable professions and generally stuck to the “straight and narrow”. If any of their deviations (e.g. falling in love) met with parental disapproval, they either gave in meekly (e.g. “Dhool ka phool”) or became self-destructive (e.g. “Devdas”). They rarely challenged the rigidity and oppression of the System. A few of them rebelled (e.g.”Birju” of “Mother India”), but these were exceptions not the rule.

Willing to defy the straight and narrow!

The 1970’s changed this and defiance became the norm. The Angry Young Man refused to be confined to the “straight and narrow” and was willing to confront systemic oppression head on. Often the trigger was injury to the father, who was invariably in the denial mode – either on account of naive idealism or due to lack of courage (e.g. “Deewar”). Sometimes the father was the perpetrator(e.g. Trishool) and the protagonist’s main agenda was to settle score with him. In either case, the protagonist remains tied to the father, irrespective of whether the father was seen as a victim or a perpetrator. While the Angry Young Man evoked our sympathy, he also left us with a sense of futility.

For the “Gully Boy”, the father is both a victim and a perpetrator, but he is not hooked to either. He neither yields to his father’s helpless resignation to the situation, nor does he fight the father’s tyranny. Instead he chooses to stand firm and pursue his own path. His angst towards the systemic oppression is expressed through his music. In this respect he reminds us of “Vijay” of “Pyaasa”, but there is one major difference.


Unlike “Vijay,” “Gully boy “does not deny his own ambitions and aspirations. Thus he does not turn away from the System but works towards carving out a meaningful space for himself. Similarly, he does not break away from his personal context, but remains integrated with it even after achieving success.

In this sense, Gully boy is a new response to systemic oppression, coercive power, authority relations and systemic membership. What the Gully boy seems to be saying is that ” Yes I know, I am a product of an unjust system, there are several injuries that I carry both in my personal space and the larger context to which I belong. I would neither Deny, nor Defy, instead I choose to Define a new world which is meaningful both for me and my context.”

Standing firm without rebelling against the father!

The Gully boy is only a dramatic representation of a change which is taking place all around us. It is much more pronounced in relatively smaller towns and lower socioeconomic strata. I find many young men and women in this segment (sons and daughters of domestic help, drivers, semi skilled workers) who are working as company executives, I.T specialists, doctors, engineers etc. The most interesting thing about these young men and women is that they remain deeply rooted in their context, without getting limited by it. For many of them their parents (usually one of them) are their role models. Even when they have grouse against their parents or family, their affiliative links remain strong. What they seem to be saying is ” I am part of a context, which I know is limiting. However, I do no wish to break free. Instead, I will anchor myself in my context and stretch its limits”.

This is particularly significant in the Indian context. The tussle between personal needs, desires and ambitions on one hand, and responsibility towards one’s family and community has often been difficult to negotiate for many Indians. If the individual rebels and break free, he/she has to live with the resultant guilt. On the other hand, a meek surrender to the diktats of the context, is suffocating and saps the vitality of the individual. This is a very real double bind in which many Indians find themselves and are forced to make a choice between Self or System. Several Hindi films have been made on this theme (e.g.”Do Raaste”) and almost all of them glorified the stance of “System before Self”

The stance of the Gully boy shows a third alternative which can be very liberating. It does not place the individual in classic binaries such as selfish vs altruistic, ambitious vs caring or modern vs. traditional. It enables the individual to find her agency/individuality without losing connection with the context.It is this simultaneity of self and system, which gives me a lot of hope.

Meritocratic Humanism- beyond charismatic leaders

It is not very easy to co-hold humanistic values  with demands of meritocracy. This is understandable because meritocracy entails looking at people primarily in terms of their skills, competencies and contribution. The emphasis is on what the person brings to the table rather than who he/she is, where does he/she come from or even what kind of person he/she is. On the other hand, in humanism, the emphasis is on  person as a human being, his/her unique context, personal qualities and relating to him/her as a fellow human rather than as an object of utility. It is therefore not surprising that research shows a clear negative correlation between the two and considerable effort is expended by many leaders and managers to find the “right balance” between the conflicting demands of humanism and meritocracy.

Simultaneously, there are people who do not play this “balancing game”. Their emphasis is on the convergences between humanism and meritocracy rather than getting caught with the conflicting pulls between the two. In their scheme of things humanism and meritocracy become mutually supportive of each other rather than being enemies of each other. Thus the “human touch” provided by such people becomes a source of inspiration for higher levels of performance. Simultaneously the “performance pressure” that they apply makes the person feel more cherished and valued as a “human being”

In almost all traditional Indian companies that I visit, I hear many stories about these charismatic figures with considerable nostalgia. A common theme across these stories is about their being “highly demanding” in performance standards and also “deeply caring” about virtually all stakeholders viz. co-workers, customers, clients etc. Simultaneity of caring and demanding seems to have been an important ingredient of their charisma.Thus it appears that at least in the Indian context, these charismatic leaders held the tension between humanism and meritocracy on behalf of the entire system. While this worked well in a certain context, the efficacy of such a process in the current context is doubtful. There are two main reasons for this-

  1. These charismatic leaders create considerable dependency and often become the proverbial banyan trees under which nothing grows. Consequently, the organisations that they leave behind are a peculiar mix of  a”close family” and a “well-oiled machine”. Generally, these organisations are fairly self-sustaining and can survive even with average leadership in a reasonably stable environment. However they lack in agility and ability to transform themselves in a dynamic and turbulent environment. This can be easily witnessed in many traditional Indian organisations post liberalisation. The end result is that they often find themselves playing the “catching up” game even in areas where they may have earlier played a pioneering role.
  2. The socio-economic changes in the larger context, including shifts in child-rearing practices, family and community relations, greater emphasis on individualistic values etc. has led to reduced power distance in authority relations. Today there is much more pull towards equalisation, participation, transparency etc.  The notion of a “benevolent patriarch” may not have totally disappeared but has certainly lost some of its sheen.

Thus we are left with no choice other than learning to co-hold the demands of humanism and meritocracy ourselves rather than depending upon a charismatic leader to do it on our behalf. The first step in this process will be to review some of the frozen meanings that we hold about both humanism and meritocracy.

In my experience, humanism is often interpreted in a soft, sentimental sort of way with very little room for authentic encounter and confrontation.One often comes across managers who refrain from giving negative feedback to their subordinates lest they hurt their “feelings”. Similarly exercise of lateral and upward authority is shunned in the name of respect, concern ,empathy and a host of similar so called humanistic values. The end result is that humanism  gets reduced to mere interface management and a convenient way of not engaging with the unpleasant realities of the system. To illustrate this process, let me give an example.

A fairly common finding in the engagement surveys conducted by many organisations  is that a statement like “I am treated with respect” gets a reasonably high score. Simultaneously, statements like ” I receive honest and regular feedback on my performance” OR ” I am consulted on decisions which affect me”, tend to receive much lower scores. The obvious question which this disparity raises is – What does respect mean if it is not accompanied by authenticity and relevant involvement? A reasonable hypothesis would be that all that is being said by the respondents is that no one shouts at them or behaves “badly” with them, but nevertheless they end up being taken for granted. The underlying indignity and patronisation of this process is rarely recognised.

Such superficial interpretations of humanism lead to a situation where authentic engagements are replaced by polite diplomatic interfaces. Interestingly research data shows that most Indian managers find their organisations to be over-diplomatic. If this is how humanism is being interpreted then it can only be an impediment to meritocracy and never become its ally.

Much the same can be said in respect of meritocracy. Invariably, it is interpreted in terms of “deliverables” and targets and that too on a quarter to quarter basis. The institutional contribution of the individual or the invisible waste/ damage that he/she may have caused in achievement of the numbers is rarely taken into account. Even efficacy of developmental interventions like training programmes/workshops is measured by feedback rating scales. Is it then any surprise that many trainers/consultants focus more on creating a favourable impression rather than on learning? Personally, I am extremely sceptical of interventions which create only euphoria and no distress.

Similarly, I have found moderately high scores in employee engagement as a much better indicator of healthy employee interface than extremely high scores. Many times extremely high scores indicate complacency and collective delusions. In such cases, it is not unusual to find a disconnect between employee engagement scores and company performance/perception of other stakeholders like customers. On the other hand moderately high scores tend to indicate positive self-regard coupled with a realistic appraisal of the difficulties and potent restlessness to improve the situation. Unfortunately, in the so called meritocracy ,the focus is on winning the much coveted prize of the “best employer” rather than thinking about the health of the organisation-employee interface.

To sum up, co-holding of humanism and meritocracy will entail a serious review of the meanings that we may have given to them. At the surface level, we will not only find them as adversaries but also as self-defeating. Superficial humanism only creates invisible indignities and superficial meritocracy only creates invisible waste. In order to pursue their true essence we will need to discover their convergence and mutually supportive relationship. Not that the inherent conflicting pull will disappear altogether but we may be pleasantly surprised that they not merely complement each other in very significant ways, but in fact are meaningless without each other.