This is the second time in a couple of months that I've watched a movie and loved it so much that I had to wonder why I didn't get to it sooner. While the other one, Parvarish, was only a silly, fun piece of masala candy that tickled me for personal reasons, Shree 420 is one of the all-time classics of Hindi cinema, one that helped me understand why Raj Kapoor is Raj Kapoor, and why Nargis is Nargis. And I can't believe I waited this long.
Raj (Raj Kapoor) is a guileless, carefree vagabond, wandering the streets of Bombay in search of work. He has a college degree - he carries his diploma in his pocket, along with a medal for honesty that he earned as a child. In his wanderings Raj meets a merry band of beggars and working folk, the den mother of whom (Lalita Pawar) is charmed by his innocence and takes him under her wing. They live on the footpath in front of the home of the blustery tycoon Seth Dharmanand (Nemo), who is kept awake nights by the vagrants' cheery singing. Raj also encounters the beautiful Vidya (Nargis), a down-to-earth schoolteacher who has fallen on hard times, selling her books and her trinkets to the local pawn dealer to make ends meet. Sparks fly between Raj and Vidya, but Raj frets that he cannot offer her a financially stable future. Opportunity knocks when Raj meets the vampish, scheming Maya (Nadira), a greedy socialite who recognizes in Raj a talent that she can exploit to separate others from their money. From Maya's small-time cons Raj graduates into full-scale employment as a master of fraud with Seth Dharmanand, selling bogus shares in bogus companies and running other big-time schemes. (The film's title, "Mr. 420," refers to section 420 of the Indian penal code; "420" is vernacular shorthand for a crook or a con.) Raj is making real money, but it may cost him Vidya, who doesn't fit into his high-rolling world - and who anyway wants nothing to do with Raj as long as he is a con-artist and a fraud.
Shree 420 is rich with symbols of the promise and pitfalls of post-partition India. Raj's emergence at the beginning of the film from his rural ramblings into the hard bustle of Bombay represents the country's transition from its traditional grounding to modern government and economics - and it is no coincidence that Raj is immediately taken advantage of upon his arrival in the city. There is a running semiotic pun based around Raj's honesty medal as he pawns it and redeems it; Raj's honesty itself is for sale. For most of the film, Raj is caught between a traditional simplicity, represented by Vidya (whose name means "knowledge") and the glitter and spangle of high-tone, high-stakes capitalism, represented by Maya (whose name means "illusion, trick, deceit"). The film pits pure, hardworking, homegrown virtue directly against the exotic, westernized world of greed and fraud. Ultimately the film weaves a complex and powerful social message, exhorting the everyday people - who in the film literally sleep on the doorstep of the fat-cat's opulent home - to work together to build an India that is modern and yet free of exploitation by that greedy element.
The richness of the narrative and its symbolic arsenal is matched - even exceeded - by Shree 420's pure entertainment value. Raj Kapoor is a masterfully physical performer, moving fluidly between Chaplinesque antics and Cary Grantish suavity as quickly as changing a mask (another of the film's recurring symbols). He is a delight to watch. Nargis, one of the greatest stars of the era, has an ineffable grace that transcends beauty, a riveting poise and a presence. She ranges from firmly proud in her early meetings with Raj, to bashfully passionate as their romance develops, to heartbreakingly wounded when she is insulted by Maya. In either of the stars' performances it is clear why this film is a revered classic. Nadira is car-wreck compelling (and maddeningly sexy) in her career-defining vampish turn as the bitter, manipulative Maya (screencap below). Finally, there are the film's timeless songs, from Raj Kapoor's iconic "Mera joota hai japani," to the tender declaration of love in "Pyaar hua ikraar hua," to the exuberant peasant dance of the vagrants in "Ramaya vastavaya," to Nadira's seductive call to the dark side, "Mud mud ke na dekh". I haven't named them all and I don't doubt that someone will chime in with another favorite - they are all that special. My friend Sanket at Bollywood Music Club has more about the delicious music of Shree 420
There are volumes more that could be said and have been said about this film, its place in Hindi cinema, and the significance of its social commentary. But if you haven't seen Shree 420, don't spend any more time reading about it - just go and watch it.