Shree 420 – a treatise on Nehruvian India

When Shree 420 was released in 1955, it only seemed that the global roll of Raj Kapoor, which began with Awara, was unstoppable. With Shree 420, he came closer to the masses, by taking a leaf out of their own lives. Such was the impact of Shree 420, that viewers from China to Egypt and Russia to India could easily connect with this remarkable tale of a small-towner trying to make it big in a city and also spawned a zillion imitations.
A straightforward simpleton Raj (Raj Kapoor) arrives in Bombay to make it ‘big’ one day. He is appalled by the indifference of the people in the city and pawns a gold medal he has received for honesty (a classic metaphor). A series of comic episodes brings him close to the school teacher Vidya (Nargis). The underemployed Raj, with his Rs.35 salary, finds it difficult to fulfil his dream of setting up a home with Vidya.

Enters Maya (Nadira), a high-society casino darling, who sells a dream of a ‘big’ life to Raj. Vidya implores upon him to return to their sweet old world, where they shared a common dais. His refusal forces her to leave him to realise the futility of his ways. Raj becomes a ‘big’ man, gets a bungalow, a car and a name in Bombay. The song ‘Mud Mud ke na dekh’ encapsulates the arrival of a new life for him. Yet, he feels lonely at the top. One day, he drops in at the slum to meet his old friends and is shocked to see an ad in their hands, where a house is promised on the payment of Rs.100. Raj’s name appears on the poster. The slum dwellers give all their earnings to Raj and beseech him to build a house for them. The Seth who has published this poster also starts a bogus company (Raj, Raj, Raj &Co.), where shareholders are invited to invest in a gold mine in Tibet! He feels further shaken when Vidya enters his bungalow one day and returns his medal of honesty. Raj has to play his cards now. He has gone too far to come back.
Shanker-Jaikishan’s music was a gem by all means and each and every song has stood the test of time. The opening song Mera Joota Hai Japani perhaps stands for the present day global Indian. The song is an ode to life and the way it moves on. The Socialist outlook of the times comes in Dil Ka haal Sune Dilwala. Raj and Vidya being caught up in two different worlds and his longing for his earlier life is captured in the lovable Ramayya Vastavayya. Raj Kapoor easily brings in some light moments with the riddle-ridden children’s song Ichak Daana. The cream of the movie, of course is the cult-duet Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua Hai, which would also easily classify as one of the best picturised romantic scenes in Hindi Cinema. Moreover, with this song, Raj Kapoor set-off a trend, which would provide the fodder for a zillion choreographers – SINGING IN THE RAIN! When this song was being recorded, Nargis and Raj Kapoor even enacted the scene before Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar in the recording studio to give them a gist of the song. The song turned out to be not just legendary, but also prophetic.

Mud Mud ke na dekh was one of the earliest hits of Asha Bhosle and she soon turned out to be a favourite for the ‘party’ numbers. The tight-fitting outfit worn for the song gave Nadira a tough time; but the effort paid off, when every costume and accessory used by her in the movie turned out to be a fashion statement. Legend has it that even the Prime Minister of Israel wanted a Nadira-type cigarette holder! But years later Nadira confessed in an interview that Shree 420, was not just her biggest blockbuster, but also her biggest curse. The impact of her devilry was so strong that she never got to play the lead heroine in any movie and was typecast as a bitchy vamp forever.
Today, certain aspects of Shree 420 might seem to be a product of Fabian Socialism, so typical of Nehru. But the issues raised here continue to exist. Even today, the housing crisis in Mumbai sets the tone for the elections. Beggary (and Bekaari- unemployment) continues to dog India. Though educated-unemployment has drastically reduced, the (in)ability to speak English continues to cast a pall over one’s skills. Even today, the dialogue of Raj “Log raton raat Lakhpati bannachahte hai” (people want to be millionaires overnight) continues to resonate in the umpteen number of short-cuts to the fame and money factory, where people are ready to stoop down to any extent to get what they desire. Somewhere, Raj’s character is like that of the Monk who sold his Ferrari.

Certain scenes and dialogues stand out in Shree 420:
1. When a politician mocks Raj calling him a 420, Raj retorts saying “If I’m a 420, then you are…” The camera quickly shifts to the number plate of the politician’s car – 840!

2. When the same politician/seth gives a ‘holier than thou’ speech to the public, Raj occupies the opposite podium and bellows “Jinko roti khaani ho, woh idhar aa jaaye, aur jinko hawa khaani ho, woh wahin reh jaaye”

3. Raj takes Vidya to Footpath Palace Hotel for tea – a stall in the foothpath! He has not a single penny to spare. He asks Nargis “Aapke paas do aane honge? Inke paas 100 ka chutta nahin hai, aur mere paas sirf 100 ke note hai” (DO you have 2 annas? I only have a 100-rupee note and he has no change). In the conversation that follows, Raj proposes to Vidya. They are speechless, but find an answer as they break into Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua Hai.

4. Raj visits Nargis in the clothes stolen from the laundry where he works. She looks at him with awe but the cat comes out of the bag when she sees his torn shoes!

5. Yeh Bambai Hai Bambai! Yahaan Imaraten bane hai inton ke aur dil paththar ke (This is Bombay. Here buildings are made of bricks and hearts of stone)

What made Shree 420 special is the way Raj Kapoor encapsulated the dream of the middle-class. The performance of the lead actors Raj, Nargis and Nadira were exemplary. But Lalita Pawar as Lady Kelewali (Raj’s nickname for the banana seller) stole the thunder in all the scenes she was present. An irony it is, that the biggest vamp of Hindi-cinema is most remembered for the benevolent roles that she played (in Shree420, Anari and Anand). Raj Kapoor even named the characters according to their persona. Nargis, playing a righteous school teacher became Vidya and the Nadira playing the Socialite selling bogus dreams became Maya.

To meet the Rajs and Vidyas, all you have is to look around yourselves, you will find plenty of dreamy eyes, looking forward to their uncertain future or better still, look at yourself, for the conflict between Vidya and Maya goes on in each of us, giving us our ‘Raj’ moments. Nothing more is required to strike a chord with a classic that Shree 420 is!

2 thoughts on “Shree 420 – a treatise on Nehruvian India

Add yours

  1. Arjun, this is one of my favourite RK films though Awara (I think) is a better film, overall. Thanks for the good read.

    ps: I know I visited your blog before, and commented on one of the posts, but I have no clue which one!


  2. Thanks Anu… It is only of late that I have been going through blogs of people who are writing on vintage Hindi cinema and I'm glad to have discovered your blogs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: