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Shree 420 (1955)

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Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420 (1955)

Shree 420 was a worldwide hit on its release and even today it remains popular. Raj Kapoor reprises his Chaplinesque tramp of Awaara for this film. (The 420 of the title refers to the section of the Indian Penal Code that deals with fraud, so the film’s title means ‘Mr Fraudster’.)

Raju (Raj Kapoor) pretends to be knocked down by Seth Sonachand Dharmanand (a Rushdie-esque name to imply a rich hypocrite), whose car numberplate, 840, identifies him as a double cheat. Raju arrives in Bombay, where he meets a banana-seller (Lalita Pawar), who instantly becomes a mother figure. He then meets Vidya (‘Knowledge’; Nargis) when he pawns his honesty-medal for Rs 40, which is stolen immediately. After several setbacks he encounters Vidya again, along with her disabled father, who together run a school for poor children. Raj finds work in the Jai Bharat (‘Long-live Indian laundry and romances Vidya, but is picked up by Maya (‘Illusion’; Nadira), who realises his skill at the card table. Seth Sonachand asks him to join his business and Raju takes one of Maya’s saris from the laundry for Vidya to wear to a Diwali party at the nightclub, where he plays cards. Raju has to choose between Knowledge and Illusion. When Vidya runs away, Raju stays behind. Later he takes his winnings to her house, but she sends him away. Raju seems to have fallen into Maya’s trap as he begins to work on various scams, including ‘The Tibetan Gold Company’, but when Seth Sonachand’s housing scam proves too much for him, he is blackmailed into staying. Eventually, Vidya brings him back to the city in search of a better future.

The film, written by K. A. Abbas, the left-wing journalist, while drawing on Chaplin’s tramp, is a story of the villager’s journey to the city. Here, he quickly re-creates his networks, forming a family with the banana-seller and the pavement-dwellers, while seeking redemption in romantic love with the good woman, and eventually rejecting the temptations of the vamp and of money. The film shows how identities in the city become fluid and uses the symbols of clothing and masks to illustrate how these can be put on and cast off, typified in the song, ‘Mera joota hai japani’.

Along with the meaningful and well-constructed story, the film’s strength lies in the luminous presence of Nargis. Said to be Raj Kapoor’s lover, she worked with him on some of his greatest films before their relationship ended and she left him to return to her mentor, Mehboob, for her swansong, Mother India. Raj Kapoor, son of the great Prithviraj (star of India’s first talkie, Alam ara [1931], and of many others, including Phool and Sikander, though best remembered now for his portrayal of Akbar in Mughal-e Azam), had now established himself as one of Indian cinema’s leading directors, producers and actors, dominating Hindi film for four decades. He set up a team that was very similar to the old studio system where he began (in Bombay Talkies — see Achhut kanya and Kismet), with Nargis as his star and the Shankar—Jaikishen team as his music directors, along with a stable of personnel.

One of the glories of Raj Kapoor’s films is the music, and every song in this film has a great tune and lyrics (by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri), and is well picturised and integrated into the narratives. ‘Mera joota hai japani’ sets the theme for the whole film, while ‘Ramaiya vastavaiya’ highlights the good nature of the pavement-people and their capacity for joy. Then there is ‘Mud mud ke na dekh’, revealing to Raju the temptations of money, and Vidya’s lament, where her image divides to stay behind and to run after him, ‘Jaane wale mudke zara dekh ke jaana’, as well as one of the all-time favouritelove songs of the Hindi film, ‘Pyaar hua, ikraar hua’.

Cast and Production Credits

Year – 1955, Genre – Crime, Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – R. K. Films, Director – Raj Kapoor, Music Director – Shanker Jaikishan, Cast – Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Rashid Khan, Pesi Patel, Hari Shivdasani, Iftekhar, Nana Palsikar, Shailendra, M. Kumar, Sheela Vaz, Nemo, Ramesh Sinha, Bhdudo Advani

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