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Aamir Khan and The Pursuit of Excellence

Film-making is very similar to entrepreneurship. The role of a film producer is analogous to that of a venture capitalist. Good producers, like smart venture capitalists, know that it’s not just about writing a check and it’s not just about big stars and quality music. In the same way, simply providing venture funding or throwing money at a start-up cannot ensure success, and it’s not necessarily a great thing for entrepreneurs to have lots of work experience and domain expertise in their industry. The actors and the director, like entrepreneurs, work to bring the script and business plan to life. More than anything else, making a good film and building a business from scratch both require oodles of creativity.

Aamir Khan, whose latest film 3 Idiots hit the silver screen recently, has built an awe-inspiring track record as a film producer, director and actor. Khan is consistently inconsistent in an industry known for its formulaic fare. Like venture capitalists, who tend to think and invest in herds, film producers tend to go with “what works” at the box office. Aamir Khan, as actor and more recently as producer and director, has broken new ground with every film, especially since the release of the Oscar-nominated Lagaan in 2001, defying categorization as an action, comedy or romantic actor.

Mr. Khan achieved considerable commercial success as producer, director and actor in a film about a dyslexic child’s travails with the schooling system, a subject unheard of in Indian cinema. When he has been associated with projects where the story is more formulaic, like in last year’s romantic comedy Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and action flick Ghajini, the treatment has been refreshingly different. Mr. Khan has mastered the balance between art and commerce, pleasing the critics and pulling in hordes of audiences at the same time. With 3 Idiots, the cumulative box office collections from his last three films are projected to exceed 5 billion rupees, or $109 million. By Bollywood standards, Aamir Khan is a one-person industry.

There are several lessons that one can draw from Mr. Khan’s success. The defining characteristics of his approach seem to be his selectivity when committing to a project and his insistence on working with high-quality people. Many venture capitalists tend to make more investments than they can understand or manage, hoping that a few might hit, a philosophy known as “spray and pray.” Producers and actors, too, have followed this approach. Nowadays, all actors like to profess the virtues of selecting the right script and focusing on one film at a time – an approach which, incidentally, was pioneered by Aamir Khan.

Through his cinema, Mr. Khan has also made subtle political and social pronouncements. His art has been imitating life in India, whether it was the anti-establishment stance and anti-right wing-extremist undertone of 2006’s Rang De Basanti, or 3 Idiots, which talks about how parents pressure children to achieve academic success and the mechanical approach to education at most Indian universities. Pursue excellence and success will follow, the protagonist in 3 Idiots reminds us.

Mr. Khan’s recent cinema has sensitized millions of parents to let their children become what they want to, rather than forcing them to be doctors, lawyers or engineers. The subtext of why parents would wish so for their children is, however, missing from the narrative.

In a socialist India with strict government control over economic activity, those vocations were likely the only ones which came with a certain guarantee to a minimum standard of living. Since the liberalization of 1991 and the boost to economic freedom given by the BJP-NDA government from 1998-2004, career opportunities have expanded dramatically. Today, young Indians can be productively employed as radio jockeys, artists or sportspeople. Popular attitudes haven’t caught up with the growth of opportunity and the majority of Indians continue to believe that what you study in college should dictate what you do in life. It is incomprehensible to the pre-1980s generation why someone might choose to study literature, or why an engineer might want to be a photographer. This stems from the perceived or real lack of economic opportunity in “unconventional” career choices, and the solution is economic liberalization.

Creating an environment that allows people to pursue excellence in a field of their choosing is what makes for a prosperous and happy society. The importance of effective policy design and implementation cannot be over-stated to achieve that end. In that context, last year’s Right to Education bill was a major letdown. It does not allow individuals and communities to run schools as they would deem fit, favoring needless government control instead. It focuses on rationing existing supply instead of sowing the seed for capacity expansion.

The consequences of such a policy are very damaging, directly affecting the quality of human resources available to startups and established businesses alike.

Since 2004, there has been virtually no progress on economic liberalization. Without it, India’s true potential will remain untapped. Aamir Khan has started a revolution of sorts in drawing rooms across the country by bringing attention to the state of the schooling and higher education system. The liberalization of the economy and the education sector must go hand in hand. Any other policy is a deliberate denial of opportunity to millions of Indians. Perhaps Aamir Khan would do well to make a film on this impossible topic, and then we can expect life to imitate art.

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