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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Shades of the showman (Shree 420)

Count Ranbir Raj's initiation into the con world complete when with one swift hand move he shows Maya how the honest country lad can don the garb of the smooth Rajkumar of Peeplinagar. In an instant, his eyes look narrower, his lips curl into a devious grin and his adorable face sheds its agreeable quality to attain a roguishly attractive sheen. It is almost as if the bright lights of the rich society of Bombay has affected him inside. The change is not just in his attire. Ranbir Raj becomes a new person altogether. Ready to rob every pocket to better his prospects in this cut-throat world of greed, crime, power and deceit. It is then that Shree 420 comes into its own. Raj Kapoor's tale about an honest and cheerful Ranbir Raj catapults into a drama more entertaining and  enthralling.

So what makes this 1955 social drama a cult classic of sorts? Is it Raj Kapoor's sweet Chaplinesque character? Is it Nargis's fine portrayal of the honest and sensible Vidya? Is is the stark depiction of Bombay's underbelly of greed, crime, deceit and poverty? Is it Nadira's stunning portraiture of the luscious vamp Maya? Is it the superlative contrast between Vidya and Maya, two women who represent two worlds? Is it the evolution of Raj's character that forms the core of the film? Is it the supporting cast that adds a cauldron of flavour to this cinematic venture? If you were to ask me, I'd say, it is the sum total of all these experiences that makes Shree 420 a joyride. A joyride of drama, emotions, songs, dance and education.
Raj Kapoor's directorial wand almost plays vibgyor tricks. What he started in Awara (I'm talking of his tramp persona) he completes here. But, unlike Raj Raghunath, Ranbir Raj is more complete and special. His transformation from the truthful and hardworking young man from Allahabad to the smart Alec from Peeplinagar is more credible. When he sings Mera joota hain japani (Mukesh) you get a whiff of the candidness with which he walks into the big bad city. Here is a man who is educated, honest and ready to work hard. But such is the system of society that these jewel qualities will hardly fetch him the reward. It takes some time before he learns that he will soon have to sacrifice his integrity to live a decent life; that this candour will cost him his goodness. This transformation is depicted well, is gradual and hence believable. Four years of experience (Awara happened in 1951) surely refined the director in Kapoor.
Considering that this is the last film where Kapoor directed Nargis, they sure share a stunning chemistry. Frothy and flawless, Raj and Vidya's love story is absolutely enjoyable. She is Vidya, the world that fosters goodness and integrity. With her, Raj can still believe that truth will take him far. He has to struggle hard, has to bite dust most of the time, but it is with her that he can be his self. Even when he lies to her regarding his profession, that lie is short-lived. Because Vidya is not the girl who he can fool. For, Vidya reinstates his belief in truth and openness. A poor school teacher, she is the girl who recognises the righteousness in Raj and accepts his honest love. Pyar hua ikraar hua (Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar) is truly a watershed moment. Not only is it the most famous love song picturised in the rain, it also bears testimony to the sheer love that rises above all troubles. I'd love to say that Raj Kapoor and Nargis live on in our memory, mostly because of this awesome song.
The turning point in Raj's life comes with Maya. She stands for illusion, the illusion of glamour and riches. She attracts him to the world that promises everything wonderful. He can now abdicate his worries and sorrows to move on to this extravagant world. He can earn enough to ensure a wealthy livelihood for Vidya and himself. But what's the catch? Raj plays ignoramus in the beginning. But it does not take much time for him to realise that he has sold his soul to Seth Sonachand Dharmanand (a superlative Nemo) and his cronies. Beneath the veneer of style, glamour, fame and riches is the disgusting world of lies, deceit and heartbreak. Shunning Vidya's pure touch indeed hurts him deep. Though Maya gives refuge, Raj soon discovers that the help that this sexy vamp offers is outright selfish. If Vidya was beauty, Maya is stunning. But Vidya's beauty was wholesome and unadulerated. Maya is tainted, wicked and iniquitous. She might beckon him to the flashy world with Mud mud ke na dekh (Asha Bhonsle) and Raj might relent for some time, but he soon yearns for the faithful love of Vidya and the street dwellers. His heart pains as he sings along with them in Ramaiyya vastavaiyya (Mohd Rafi, Mukesh and Mangeshkar). And, reality dawns on him.
A special word for Nadira here. She is stunning. Playing the astute and scheming Maya with elan, she sure makes the vamp look delicious. Donning sexy gowns and dresses and stylishly resting that cigarette holder on her perfect pout, it takes attitude to play this role with such ease. And Nadira had plenty of that I believe. Wish Kapoor used more of this fabulous actor in his films...
Accolades for music directors Shankar Jaikishan. They were simply fantastic in this film. Every song is a veritable gilded classic. Be it Pyar hua ikrar, Ichak dana, Mud mud ke na dekh, Dilka haal sune dilwala, ramaiya vastavaiya, Mera joota hain japani or Ae janewaley, the film would have looked empty without them. If the characters and the story are the heart, the songs are definitely the soul.
Trust Kapoor to etch every character fittingly. In Shree 420, he makes sure that Ganga Mai (Lalita Pawar), Seth Sonachand (Nemo), the pawn man and the beggar stands out. With awesome dialogues, this is one film that is engaging in its every frame. And this flamboyance is seen in the song sequences as well.
But the one who stands out the the most is Ranbir Raj (Kapoor used his original name in this classic). When he is good, he is adorable (a bit shabby though, but given his poverty that is inevitable) and sweet. He is self deprecating at times and always ready to forgive and forget. These qualities in fact, enhance his appeal (though sometimes you might he irked by his innate goodness). He has the uncanny ability of laughing at himself (he reveals that he camouflages his sorrows with laughter) and gives himself time to merge into the vein of Bombay. He pursues Vidya with his characteristic charm and doesn't waste a chance to tell her how he feels. In this sweet Raj's portrayal, Kapoor shows his finesse.
But, that fine touch exemplifies when Peeplinagar's Rajkumar enters the stage. Dashingly attractive and devilishly delectable, this smooth man floors with his style and panache. Initially confident of his ways, Kapoor's transformation is spectacular. And when there is the dilemma of choosing the right path, Kapoor again excels in depicting how Raj chooses to see light. Different shades of the same character depicted in various stages of the film. And, all done with equal amount of flair. Very characteristic of Raj Kapoor, the original showman.


  1. Keen observation.
    I like Nargis of Awara more, probably because Nadira eclipses her in 420.
    Nadira is awesome here — the vamp that every hero will fall for and the reason why the film attains a fast pace in the second half.
    Portraying the fallen hero in Awara is easier because RK is born in the gutter; there's no transformation into evil that needs to be shown.
    In 420, the challenge is greater and RK the director rightly gives time to his reel character to sink into evil. Consequently, RK is 420 is way better than his character in Awara, which looks contradictory at times.
    Another good post. Keep watching RK films.

  2. @Netdhaba: Awara was also a fascinating film simply because RK dealt with the deep dark society at such a young age. But Shree 420 is a much more polished version and a finer one at that. Though he looked great in both films and acted very well in both, I kind of prefer this one because there is never a tedious moment. Thank you for the comment and keep reading :)

  3. Raj Kapoor's Chaplinesque tramp does not appeal to me at all, but I still like Shree 420 - for the superb music, for Nadira, for the story, and for RK's acting, (there's one scene where he tells Nadira that he can don whatever persona she wants him to - he sweeps his palm down his face, and you see his expression changing. Fantastic!
    BTW: An aside. I read somewhere that one of Nadira's dresses in Mud-mud ke na dekh was so skintight she had to keep standing - she couldn't sit in it!

  4. @Dustedoff: Yes that scene is my favourite too (and that's the one i've written about in the start of this post). It shows what a marvellous performer RK was. Hi eyes did it all and he is so killingly good looking after he does that.
    I simply love Nadira and she is awesome here. There is something sexy in her wickedness. Shree 420 is immensely enjoyable because of these two actors :)

  5. @Sharmi: Can I make a request for the discussion of a movie? Recently I watched Ray's "Mahanagar", and LOVED it. I thought it was one of the most sensitive portrayals of feminism and marriage. I was wondering if you'd discussed that movie earlier in your blog. I'd love to read your take on it.

  6. @NP: No I still haven't dealt with any of Ray's films but there have been requests from many of my friends to do so. Mahanagar is an awesome film. I have the DVD and will watch it soon. Then I will surely discuss it here. Thank you for the comment and keep reading :)

  7. an indian commercial treatment of a chaplin inspiration!!!!!!!

  8. @Cancerian: Not only that. It's got a lot more in typical Raj Kapoor style :)

  9. Its interesting to understand why RK opted to align himself with the Chaplinques image rather than the other common man poor man image of Guru Dutt in Pyaasa. Its the way he wanted to comment on the ills in the society. RK wanted to laugh at himself and the society and then hold the mirror up to it..GD wanted to show the pain and hold the was smiling and passing sarcastic comments (Bhukh ne hain bade pyaar se paala ) and other was almost spitting on the society ( Yeh kismat ke saude, ye Saudon pe Takaraar , jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahaaN haiN )...

  10. @Rahul: And the tongue-in-cheek style always finds favour with me. That is why I love these films of Raj Kapoor!