A Morality Tale for All Time

Sixty years after it was released, Raj Kapoor’s best film is so fresh it could be about the Mumbai of today.

Ask a film buff or a critic which is the great director’s best ever film and a vast majority will point towards Awara. A select few, connoisseurs all, will mention the first part of Mera Naam Joker, which had three chapters. For a minority – and this writer is one of them – Kapoor’s finest undoubtedly is Shree 420, at once his most entertaining and subtle film in which not just he but his tramp persona emerged in full bloom.

It is a parable, and like most parables, its dramatis personae are ordinary people and its lessons are to be applied to life on a daily basis; where Awara raises the ‘what if’ question – a judge’s son raised by a criminal – Shree 420 is about situations that could happen to anyone. What would you and I do if offered a chance to make lots of money off gullible rich men via slightly illegal methods?

Shree 420 always suffers when placed next to Awara. It is the latter which has all the great set pieces – the “ghar aaya mera pardesi” dream, the sizzling sexual chemistry of Raj Kapoor and a swimming costume clad Nargis, the conflict between Nargis and her judge mentor Prithviraj. Besides, the treatment of Shree 420 is deceptively light hearted, even if the humour is dark—a Comedy Noir, if you will. Not that there are no memorable scenes or songs – “Pyaar hua ikraar hua” is embedded in the national DNA and ‘Mera Joota hai Japani‘  is known all over the world. But, Shree 420 remains the funny younger brother of the great Awara, good for a laugh, but not as, well, worthy.

shree420gAnd yet, to think that would be a mistake. Shree 420 is not just humorous, it is subversive in both tone and message. In an early scene, BA pass Allahabad boy Raj, carrying his gold medal for honesty, is given a life lesson by a professional beggar about Bombay. The people of this city only love money, he says and then pushes him aside – “Saamne se hat bhai, dhande ka time hai” – get out of my way, this is the hour for business. Or take the encounters between Seth Sonachand Dharmanand, who, after losing at cards to the fake “Raj Kumar of Peepli” immediately sees possibilities in the young man for his nefarious schemes – “Aapse mulaqat hui, isme fayda hi fayda” (I am sure I will profit from your acquaintance).

The rich are cheats, but they are also stupid. How quickly they get taken in by Raj when he starts selling shares of a fake gold mine. The poor are large hearted and give him shelter, but early in the film, they are also ready to buy his teeth-strengthening powder. K.A. Abbas, normally given to writing earnest stories and dialogues, is at his slyest best here.

Raj Kapoor and Nadira in Shri 420

Raj Kapoor and Nadira in Shree 420

The film is about love, deception, crime and ultimately redemption. High society is full of hoarders, racketeers and profiteers, all of whom made money during an era of shortages. They are quick to accept a fraud prince in their midst, simply because he is introduced to their group by Maya the seductress, so fascinatingly portrayed by Nadira. Vidya, the honest teacher (always in a sari) is simplicity and tradition, the perfect foil to the glamorous and thus western Maya; it is almost pre-ordained that the young man will first fall for Maya’s charms before he comes to his senses and comes back to Vidya and to the salt of the earth, the slum dwellers whose noise keeps the Seth awake at night.

Most of all – and this makes it a real winner – is that Shree 420 is the quintessential Bombay story. Those enjoying themselves at the five star hotels – or, in today’s parlance, attending Page 3 parties – have dubious morals and criminal antecedents. They are in cahoots with each other, pulling off ever-new scams during the day and drinking and dancing at night. Their housing schemes are a sham, created to cheat the poor, their grand projects are non-existent, designed to cheat rich investors greedy for big profits. What could be more contemporary than that.

The love of the broke couple, who can at best afford a cup of tea on the street and yet give full voice to their hopes and dreams, is much more romantic than the continent-hopping of the globalised generation.

After this film, Raj Kapoor directed six more films, all commendable but none of them in the same league as Shree 420. His next directorial outing was Sangam, in 1964, which was totally different from his 1950s persona. The poor tramp had gone, in his place had come a somewhat portly Air Force officer. He had not lost his touch; but all these years later, it is Shree 420 we still remember.