In this weekly column, we revisit gems from the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420.
For a young man with a college education, the world is his oyster. He can be anything he sets his eyes on and when we meet Raj Kapoor’s Raj in his 1955 film Shree 420, we see a happy-go-lucky man who sees the world as his playground. He might not have the money, but he surely has the wits to work his way up. From being an honest buffoon who believes in the power of honesty, to a rich man who has sold his soul to the devil – Raj goes through a tumultuous journey in Shree 420. But what brings him back to the ground is his deep-rooted morality that does not allow him to cheat his newfound family in the city and the woman he so dearly loves.
Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 released a few years after his film Awara and solidified his ‘desi Charlie Chaplin’ persona. A vagabond who goes from one place to the next and finds humour in the darkest of situations, Raj is the man who wears a mask of joy just so he can get through his day. When Nargis’ Vidya calls him out for his buffoonery, he says that he is trying his best to get through life even though he understands the harsh realities of the unjust society.
Shree 420 is set in a newly independent India and celebrates patriotism in its full glory. Shailendra’s “Mera Joota Hai Japaani” celebrates the inherent love that an Indian has for their country and is still seen as an anthem amongst Indians all over the world. But despite its patriotic aspect, the film blatantly points at the government’s failure in providing ample employment opportunities, which has led to a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The film also believes in the philosophy that all rich people are morally dubious, which looks like it was an attempt by the makers to please the not-so-rich masses who were their audiences at that time. Directed by Raj Kapoor, the film’s story by KA Abbas focuses on the lopsided foundation of the country and offers a solution that seems extremely privileged.
As the film opens, Raj finds himself struggling to find a job until he comes across Maya, played by Nadira, who gets a sense of his gullible nature and attempts to exploit him. Raj is seduced by the glamour and disillusioned by the power of money. In a significant scene in the film, Raj has to choose his path. He can either stay in the conniving world of Maya, or cling on to his morals and return to his simple life with Vidya. As the lyrics of “Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh” are sung by Maya, Raj gets convinced to not look back.
While the protagonist here is Raj, the film pays enough attention to Vidya who is shown as his moral compass. Vidya is an educated woman who runs her own school but is struggling to make ends meet. With “Pyaar Hua Iqraar Hua” Vidya and Raj make promises to be with each other despite their circumstances so when Raj leaves her in a drunken state, Vidya decides to let him go for her own self-esteem.
Shree 420 is 66 years old but what seems to be the most relatable aspect of this film today is the way it showcases its mob mentality. In different sections of the film, we see Raj and other characters, trying to get their way as they preach convincingly to a large crowd and as is the case always, the best orator wins. When Raj fools a big crowd with his global outlook vs a seth’s “Indian-ness,” the mob is instantly drawn to Raj but as soon as they realise that he is selling them a fake product, they beat him up. It is this faith of the large masses, who are economically weaker, that leads Raj to hang his hat as a conman.
Watching the film today, Raj Kapoor’s Raj feels caricaturish and Nadira’s vamp Maya looks extremely one-note. Nargis, who is clearly the best actor in the cast, is so magical in the film that watching her expressions in the song “O Janewale” is simply mesmerising. Lalita Pawar’s short cameo as Ganga Mai is lovable and endearing.
Shree 420 added to the global fame of Raj Kapoor as the film, and its music by Shankar-Jaikishan were widely celebrated all over the world. The songs “Dil Ka Haal Sune Dilwaala”, “Ramaiya Vastavaiya”, “Ichak Dana Beechak Dana” written by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri, are still remembered as classics.
Shree 420 is named after Section 420 of the IPC that deals with cheating and fraudulent behaviour. Adding ‘Shree’ to the title suggests that tricksters and conmen often hide in the garb of respectable men and pose threat to naive and innocent men and women of our society.
Shree 420 might feel a bit dated today but the film deserves to be watched for its iconic songs and chronicling a time in India’s history when the impressionable audience believed in the promise of a better future.
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Shree 420 is streaming on MX Player, ShemarooMe, ZEE5.