“Jo naukri dila de, BA banane wale, bigdi huyi bana de, degree banane wale,” plead two young job seekers. The men are played by Kundan Lal Saigal and Pahari Sanyal and the song is from the 1936 film Crorepati – among the earliest indications of a sentiment that would come to be expressed repeatedly in the Hindi cinema of the twentieth century.

Less than two decades later, as the new republic tried to put behind it the horrors of Partition, the unemployment crisis was serious enough to warrant a full-fledged movie from one of the country’s most well-regarded filmmakers. Bimal Roy’s Naukri (1954) told the story of Ratan Kumar Choudhury (played with great sensitivity by Kishore Kumar) who, after clearing his BA examination with distinction, comes to Calcutta with dreams of landing a job and lifting his family, consisting of a TB-afflicted sister and an elderly mother, out of poverty.

At the boarding house where he lands up, and in the city at large, Ratan encounters other young men with similar aspirations, all struggling to find a job. At every step, Ratan’s hopes are dashed, steadily eroding his optimism and ultimately driving him to contemplate ending his life. The film ends on a positive note, urging Ratan – and, one presumes, all those tens of thousands of educated unemployed like him roaming the streets of India’s cities and towns – to not give up hope.

Through the three songs filmed on Kishore Kumar, songwriter Shailendra takes us through the various stages of the job applicant’s state of mind. The jaunty Chhota Sa Ghar Hoga comes early on in the film and speaks of the young man’s dreams. In Arzi Hamari, which begins with the statutory “Dear Sir, seva mein nivedan hai,”, Shailendra deftly fuses the job seeker’s fervent appeal with a lover’s plea.

With Ek Chhoti Si Naukri Ka, one can sense exasperation creeping in. But, as with the general tone of the film, Ratan’s angst is couched in good-natured humour.

Kishore Kumar in Naukri (1954). Courtesy Bimal Roy Productions.

Despite its hopeful ending, its gentle humour, and some wonderful songs, viewers of the day rejected Naukri – maybe it cut too close to the bone. In 1954, meanwhile, came yet another Kishore Kumar starrer featuring a song that spoke of the aspirations of the educated young: “BA, MA, PhD, BT, BCom, BSD; Degree lekar baithe hain sab, karenge kya ab socho ji.”

What makes this song from Mohan Segal’s Adhikar (1954) stand out is that it championed the cause of qualified women wanting to join the workforce. While some of the views expressed in the song – like the film itself – have perhaps not aged very well, lyricist Prem Dhawan, an Indian People’s Theatre Association regular, ends on a progressive note: “Kaisi soch mein doobe ho; Kar lo jo karna chaho; Kaam sabhi achche hain jo tum apna farz nibhao.”

BA, MA, BEd, Adhikar (1954).

Others, meanwhile, were not as sanguine. In Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), new arrival Raj – BA pass, with a gold medal for his honesty – is pointedly told that he has no chance in hell of getting a job in the city. A little later, we see him pawning his precious medal, an act that heralds his moral slide.

The simmering rage finally came to a boil in the late 1960s on the streets and onscreen. In 1968, Tapan Sinha made Apan Jan, a perceptive and hugely popular film in Bengali about political violence and youth unrest that tapped into the zeitgeist of post-Naxalbari-Bengal. The film was remade in Hindi as Mere Apne (1971) by lyricist Gulzar, his first venture as director.

In a memorable scene in Sinha’s film, we see a group of youngsters singing Aalo Aamaar Aalo (The world is filled with light), one of Tagore’s classic songs, while they play catch – with a crude bomb. Gulzar responds with the ironic Haal-chaal Theek-thaak Hai: “BA kiya hai, MA kiya; Lagta hai voh bhi ain-vain kya; Kaam nahin hai warna yahaan; Aap ki dua se sab theek-thaak hai.”

Aalo Aamaar Aalo, Apan Jan (1968).

Also out in 1971 was yet another Hindi film that dealt with the urban educated unemployed. Qamar Narvi’s Badnam Farishte begins with a voice-over (by Dharmendra) that, over shots of cityscapes, factories and dams, says that despite all the progress made since independence, India is riddled with “bekaari, berozgaari, bhookh”.

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore have extended cameos as lawyers (and lovers) who find themselves on opposite sides of the courtroom in a case involving a group of 12 young men accused of robbery. The dirty dozen was forced to embark on a life of crime because of a lack of employment opportunities. They even tried their hand at self-employment, the defence lawyer tells the crowded courtroom, a cue for a flashback song sequence in which the young men go about selling their wares whilst singing, “BA, MA, PhD; Yeh diplome, yeh degree; Ho gaye jab bekaar; Toh humko karna pada vyapaar.”

Badnam Farishte, 1971).

Despite its noble intentions and the presence of Rajesh Khanna, then at the peak of his popularity, Badnam Farishte failed at the box office. It is remembered today as the film that marked the debut of a starlet named Sona, a Madhubala-lookalike who went on to wed Haji Mastan, the legendary Mumbai don who served as the inspiration for Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Deewar (1975).

Deewar coincided with the central government coming out with statistical data on employment for the first time since independence. The situation looked bleak, on paper and on the ground. India had become a third-class railway compartment, Shashi Kapoor’s Ravi tells a man vying for the same job as him in the Yash Chopra film: “Jagah bahut kam hai, musafir zyaada.”

Even a decade later, the protagonists of N Chandra’s Ankush (1986) were echoing similar sentiments: “Bekaari hai hadh se zyaada; Bekaaron ki lambi queue hai; Bus mein queue hai; Hospital mein bimaron ki lambi queue hai; Ration ki dukaan mein queue hai; Murdon ki shamshaan mein queue hai.”

Jana Aranya (1975).

If a video essay were to be made on the interview scenes from the era, they would feature clips from Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) and Jana Aranya (1975). There would be Naukri and Deewar, of course, and Mrinal Sen’s Interview (1971). But it would also feature Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Golmaal (1979), which can surely also be read as a film about the prevailing job crisis in the country.

And there’s that electrifying scene from K Balachander’s 1980 Tamil film Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu where Kamal Haasan’s combustible Rangan tears his certificates while shouting slogans against the bureaucracy, nepotism, favouritism and red-tapism.

Balachander’s film, a typically high-strung affair, told the story of three unemployed young men in Delhi and the different paths their lives take. It was remade by him in Telugu in 1981, and later in Hindi as Zara Si Zindagi (1983). Why did Balachander set his film in the national capital? Because he wanted to make a point, of course. And what better way to do it than have three unshaven and shabbily dressed young men running around Parliament House singing about unemployment and hunger?

Ghar Se School (Zara Si Zindagi, 1983).

An underwatched film from the era is Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), where we come across the eponymous angry motor mechanic’s troubled, unemployed younger brother Dominic (Dilip Dhawan). When we first meet Dominic, the son of a mill worker, he is embroiled in a brawl. In a later scene, strumming a guitar, he declares, “Meri nahin yeh duniya; Yeh duniya kaam waalon ki; Bade naam waalon ki.”

Dominic, his teary-eyed mother informs a priest, had taken up with bad company. Not long after, we see him as part of a gang of thieves looting a warehouse. When the gang leader espies one of his men reading from a carton label, he asks, “You know what happens to those who read, right?” The question triggers the gang to break into a no-frills song: “Saalon-saal padhta rahega; Degree milegi, sadh jayegi; Naukri kahin mil bhi gayi toh?”

Unemployed young men were not only more likely to engage in criminal activities, they were also vulnerable to manipulation by nefarious politicians, as Mere Apne showed us. This theme was further developed in Rahul Rawail’s hard-hitting Arjun (1985).

Mamaiya Kero Kero Kero Mama, Arjun (1985).

Of the film’s songs, the energetic and infectious Mamaiya Kero Kero Kero Mama – where, again, we see rudderless, young men running around in the streets – still sounds fresh. Lesser-known is Munni, Pappu Aur Chunmun, where songwriter Javed Akhtar, who also wrote the film’s script, uses the riddle format that had largely fallen out of favour to great effect. To every question that is posed, Sunny Deol’s Arjun thinks the answer is “Naukri!”

Like Apan Jan and Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, both Arjun and N Chandra’s sleeper hit Ankush (1986) were remade in other languages, further attesting to the pan-Indian nature of the unemployment crisis.

In the post-1991 reforms era, as Hindi cinema became glitzier, concerns over unemployment seem to have taken a backseat. We can perhaps already sense the tide shifting in the 1992 film Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, a contemporary retelling of Shree 420, where Shah Rukh Khan’s Raju, freshly arrived in the city and jobless, initially refuses to take up a low-status job, even if temporarily, as he believes, “Agar main chhota kaam karoonga na, chhota hi ban ke reh jaoonga.”

A few years later, in David Dhawan’s Mr and Mrs Khiladi (1997), Raja (Akshay Kumar), a young man with multiple degrees, is always on the lookout for an opportunity to make a quick buck. When he does decide to go job-hunting, his ambitions are not exactly scaled down. He sings, in a foreign location and while undergoing multiple costume changes, “Mujhe sab Boss kahenge; Karenge meri ghulami; Raat-din shaam-subah sab mujhe denge salaami.”

Jab Naukri Milegi To Kya Hoga, Mr and Mrs Khiladi (1997).

Despite the pedestrian poetry – written and composed by Anu Malik – Jab Naukri Milegi has managed to attract a kind of cult following over the years. A cursory internet search leads to scores of videos of young Indians dancing and miming to the song. They are the dreamers that journalist Snigdha Poonam writes about in her recent book on India’s Gen Y, a generation of highly aspirational young men and women who “will chase their dreams like their life depends on it—do or die”.

But what happens, Poonam asks, when 100 million people suddenly start dreaming big?

Apna Time Aayega (Gully Boy, 2019).