A True Marriage of Art and Ethics
By MovieTalkies.com, 17 October 2007
Raj Kapoor is one of those figures who surpass all definitions. He is much more than a producer, director, actor, editor, musician, story-teller. The legend is above all these categories and is a showman in the true sense of the term. You may not always have loved him, but he was undoubtedly one of the greatest entertainers of Indian films. His legacy continues, with his grandson set to make his debut in Hindi films next month.
If Awaara gave Raj Kapoor stupendous success and saw the appearance of the Chaplinesque tramp in Hindi films for the first time, than Shree 420 further consolidated the image of the tramp and made him immortal. Shree 420, made in 1955, is without doubt, one of the greatest of Raj Kapoor's movies after Awaara. If Awaara had the title song, 'Awaara Hoon', Shree 420 had the equally famous 'Mera Joota Hai Japani,' both sung by the inimitable Mukesh.
Shree 420 is one of the most entertaining films with a strong social content. The story of the film is very simply the battle between good and evil. This entire moral drama of good versus evil takes place in the life of simpleton Raj, who arrives in the big bad city of Mumbai from the village to earn his living. The film delves into the corrosive effect the big bad city has on his soul. In the character of Raj, we see Raj Kapoor's fascination for Charles Chaplin come into full play as his character has definite tones of the tramp.
Raju meets and falls in love with Vidya, a poor but virtuous young girl. But Raj is soon seduced by the riches of the city and amoral life of the upper class as shown to him by Seth Sonachand and Maya. He becomes a swindler or 420, as it is called in the Indian Penal Code. Of course, in the end, he mends his ways and forsakes his dishonest ways.
The director breaks new ground in many small ways. The protagonist meets his heroine in a scene when she saves him from drowning, a role reversal of sorts. Vidya (Nargis), as her name implies, is a teacher. The two fall in love with each other and Raju (Raj Kapoor) takes up a job at a laundry to make a living. While on his job, he meets Maya (Nadira), who opens up a different world to him, a world where possibilities are immense. Maya discovers Raju's ability with cards and realizes that he could be a tool to be used to get quick money. She lures him into accompanying her to the club, disguised as a prince. Sure enough, Raju makes a killing with his sleight of hand tricks at cards. But Maya walks off with all the money. Seth Sonachand comes to Raju's rescue and offers him a partnership. Raju's morals are the first casualty. With the degeneration of his character, the divide between him and Vidya keeps growing. Raju's morals are the first casualty at the altar of money. He takes Vidya to the club, but she is repulsed by the atmosphere and walks off. Raju's attempts to follow her thwarted by Maya with the famous song, 'Mudh Mudh Ke Na Dekh, Mudh Mudh Ke.' The divide between Raju and Vidya is now complete. So, while on the one hand Raju finds himself rolling in riches, he finds that he is gradually getting alienated from the people he loves like Vidya, or the fruitseller woman (Lalita Pawar). Matters come to a head when Raju gets further entangled in this web of materialism and gets involved in a housing scam with Seth Sonachand, which intends to defraud with thousands of rupees belonging to ordinary people.
The film has been written by noted writer K A Abbas, who pens another social drama after Awaara for Raj Kapoor. Shree 420 has had a far reaching influence on recent films as well, like the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.
In lot of ways, Shree 420, like Awaara before it, is a depiction of post-independence India, with its Nehruvian brand of socialism and the burgeoning capitalists. It explores the dichotomy between the two ways of living, one driven by ethical choices and one by pure materialism. The film also deals with other related conflicts within this moral framework, -- rich vs the poor; innocence vs corruption and the traditional vs the modern. The character of Vidya, as played by Nargis, is the touchstone of that is good and virtuous. The protagonist Raju, is an innocent soul who gets corrupted by the ways of the city, and then returns to the state of innocence at the end. Maya, the other woman, represents the modern and the materialistic. Of course, these demarcations are simpler in theory and nowhere is depicted as simply as that. The film's various layers are skillfully woven by Raj Kapoor into an absorbing and moving drama with a social conscientious.
The passionate love story between Raju and Vidya is played put beautifully, as only Raj Kapoor could do it, with the utmost lyricism. The scene with two lovers under the umbrella singing Pyar Hua, Ikraar Hua is certainly a part of film lore. Its magic endures even today. Like all of RK films, this one too has superb music given by Shanker Jaikishen, helped by some potent lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra, all RK favourites.
What makes Shree 420 special is also the pairing of Raj Kapoor and Nargis. This was one of the last times that the two appeared on screen together as lovers. (They did Chori Chori after Shree 420). Of course, Nargis did make a guest appearance in Jaagte Raho but she was not romantically paired opposite him ever again. The film also established Nadira as the quintessential vamp or seductress, such was the magic of Mudh Mudh Ke Na Dekh. This was also one of the few films that did not have Mukesh singing all the songs for RK. Instead Manna Dey makes hay with gems like Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua and Dil Ha Haal Sune Dilwala. Mukesh, of course, did leave his stamp with Mera Joota Hai Japani. He is believed to be quite busy with his own acting career at this time. The only other instance that comes to mind is Mera Naam Joker, where Manna Dey again shared the honours with Mukesh.
Shree 420 will remain a classic film because of its social content, as well as the manner in which it has been welded into the story, never rearing its head. The film retains its lyrical and romantic quality. Credit for that has to go to the writer KA Abbas and for Raj Kapoor's vision. He knew how to tell a story. Everything in the film, be it the music, the characters, the story, the music, is all above par. Raj Kapoor had adopted Raju the tramp as his alter ego. Raj Kapoor was able to convey the vulnerable innocence of Raju. The man had a certain vulnerable sadness, which he was able to bring on the screen. One look from those baby eyes and he had his audience entranced. But that same innocent tramp could drum up loads of passion in his romantic scenes with Vidya. Raj Kapoor gives a superlative performance as Raju. He was never over the top, though sometimes close to it. Pitted against him as the virtuous Vidya, Nargis was an epitome of grace and dignity. In sharp contrast, Nadira's vamp was a revelation. She proved that she was matchless in roles like this.
Shree 420's magic was such that it won Raj Kapoor fans not just in India but also countries such as Russia, Egypt and Iran. His brand of social realism struck a common chord in the hearts of the common man there as well.
A cry from the heart of the common man, Shree 420 is that rare blend of art and ethics, which has never been replicated in such an entertaining and moving manner by any other filmmaker.