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16 July 2012

Shree 420 (1955)

Directed by: Raj Kapoor
Music: Shankar-Jaikishen
Starring: Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Nadira,
Lalita Pawar, Nemo, Rashid Khan
Innocence and experience, ethics and ambition, love and temptation – Shree 420 brings to the fore the conflicts that arise when these clash. It also raises these questions – Is it bad to want to be wealthy? Isn’t it okay to bend the rules a little if that will ease you into a life of comfort? What happens when you stake your all, even your honesty and integrity, on the wheel of success – and lose? Is there hope of redemption after all? 

Shree 420 established Raj Kapoor’s ‘tramp’ persona, very firmly into the audience consciousness. Funnily enough, even in this film, Raj sheds his Chaplinesque persona quickly enough, as he turns from ‘Raju’ into the suave, sophisticated cardsharp, Rajkumar. ‘Funny’ because, that persona seems to overshadow everything else so much so people do not look beyond the mask - a story that Raj Kapoor tells very effectively in Mera Naam Joker – about the circus clown doomed to live and die under his mask.

The title, referring to fraud, is a trait of the protagonist Ranbir Raj Kumar (Raj Kapoor) who has come to Bombay to be successful. All his possessions are tied up in a bundle of rags – among his meagre belongings is his BA certificate, and a gold medal for honesty. When his first attempt at hitching a ride fails, Raj is not above resorting to a bit of chicanery to achieving his ends. This is also his first clash with the double standards of the wealthy.

His first acquaintance in the city is a beggar, who, afraid that Raj might be a potential rival, beats him off with a crutch. When Raj protests that he does not want to beg, the cynical old man cackles. “Are you educated?” he asks. “Are you honest?” “Are you willing to work hard?” When Raj answers in the affirmative, the beggar chuckles. “This is Bombay. You will not find employment with those qualities.” (He is by way of being a philosopher, this old man.)
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Amused by his naïveté, a rough-tongued, but kind-hearted banana seller comes to his rescue, even giving him a few bananas for free. When Raj enters a pawn shop to pawn his ‘honesty’ (his gold medal), he makes the acquaintance of Vidya (Nargis).
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The money he receives for his medal is stolen, and he is forced to take shelter on the street where the pavement dwellers try to extort ‘rent’ from him for sleeping on their pavement. Gangamai (Lalita Pawar), the banana seller recognises him from earlier on, and her acceptance of him ensures that the others look upon him as one of their own.
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As he leads them in song, the owner of the nearby mansion turns them in for disturbing the peace. The next morning, Raj runs into Vidya again. Insulted by her, he ‘jumps’ (falls) into the sea, and she saves him from drowning.
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He follows her home and ingratiates himself with her father, much to Vidya’s irritation. Her irritation disappears when she realises that he is not the loafer she deems him to be.
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Raj is already attracted to her, and is determined to get a job and prove himself worthy in her eyes. Initially, he sets himself up as an 'independent businessman', and finds himself on a collision course with Seth Dharmanand.
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He talks (fakes) his way into a job in a laundry, and he and Vidya, not being as immune to him as she pretends, are soon plighting their troth to each other.
It is through his work at the laundry that Raj runs into Maya (Nadira), a socialite without scruples. A chance incident reveals Raj’s skill at cards, and Maya is quick to take advantage.
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Disguising him as a prince (Rajkumar of Peeplinagar), Maya takes him to the club, where his card play wins her a lot of money. However, Maya has no intention of sharing with Raj.

Raj is not destined to be poor. Seth Dharmanand is farsighted, and can see a use for Raj’s skills. He offers Raj a partnership. Tempted by the vision of riches, Raj agrees. Soon, he is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.
Vidya’s happiness in Raj’s new-found success is tinged with worry – is he doing something he shouldn’t be doing? Raj reassures her and cajoles her to coming with him to the temple. Vidya assumes he means the Lakshmi temple nearby.
Instead, Raj takes her to the club. Repulsed by the vulgar ostentation and the sensuality on display, and insulted by Maya’s remarks, Vidya leaves heartbroken.
Raj is in two minds. As he wavers, Maya admonishes him ‘Never look back’.
Raj is also angered by Vidya’s reaction to his success – don’t they deserve to be happy too? One needs money to live. Recoiling from his drunkenness, Vidya is in no mood to relent. As he turns away from her, she stands still, unwavering; her heart knows that one word from her will bring him back, but her principles will not allow her to utter it.
Her inner torment is evident as, her heart 'sings' an ironic counterpoint to Maya’s song – Please look back, just once.
As Raj’s star continues to rise, Vidya’s fortunes fall, and she is forced to close her little school. Raj meets her again when he comes to ‘buy back’ his honesty;  she has come to pawn ‘vidya’ – the irony is unmistakeable. Her disgust gives him some bad moments as he is forced to question the morality of what he is doing. They had never been so far apart.
For Raj has already sold his soul to the devil – he has helped Seth Dharmanand sell shares of the fake ‘Tibetan Gold Company’ to the unwary rich.
When he hears Seth Dharmanand’s new scheme, however, he is taken aback. The latter is quick to point out that if Raj does not concur, then he, Seth Dharmanand, will be forced to expose Raj. Poor Raj is on the horns of a dilemma – how can he extricate himself from this plight, and save his friends?
There is also Maya to reckon with. She wants him to help her double-cross the Seth; she is willing to split the proceeds with him. What about Vidya? This new scheme will only drive the wedge deeper between them.
Or Vidya?

That is the crux of the film – Raj, with his (torn) Japanese shoes, his (ill-fitting) ‘English’ trousers, and Russian cap is as much an anomaly as his character is a contradiction. He is a man struggling for survival and is willing to do just about anything to achieve success. How, on the way, he pawns not just his medal for honesty, but his integrity itself, and how and where redemption awaits him forms the rest of the tale. 

Shree 420’s Raj is very different from Awara’s Raj. The latter is a street-smart youth, who having grown up in an atmosphere of crime, knows no other life. This Raj is earnest, proud of his honesty, and drawn by the glitter of a life he has never known until then. He is simple, naive; he is also human. He makes the journey from a simple man proud of his honesty, to the disillusioned and unhappy man who discovers that his conscience is still alive; what is more, he makes it believable enough that one is rooting for him to have his own happy ending.

I liked the way he shed his persona along with his clothes – the tramp was honest, but wore a strange amalgamation of clothing; the successful Raj, suave in his well-cut clothes, is morally corrupt. His face, his expressions, his walk, his whole attitude changes along with the change in his circumstances. It also seems to be a thread underpinning the whole film. Kha gayi na aap bhi mere kapdon se dhoka? asks a hurt Raj to Vidya (a stellar performance by Nargis, the last under Raj’s direction)  as she excoriates him for being anpadh, awaara, jaahil.

In a very powerful scene in the film, she asks him why he pretends to be a joker, always fooling around. Raj laughs, then turns away. Dil ka dard aur aankhon ke aansoo chhupaane ke liye ye bewaqoof maskare ka bhes bade kaam ke cheez hain. 
At the club, where, when Vidya is humiliated by Maya, and she is too overwrought to speak, she cries silently. Raj, ashamed, can only look helplessly as she leaves. Both played this scene at perfect pitch – the pathos just so, not over-dramatic, not stretched to a point where its effectiveness is lost. If anyone needed proof of Raj Kapoor’s ability to act, it was in this one scene.

Or later… Raj is determined to be someone, gain something, and he has reached a point where he doesn’t care how. Vidya is unwilling to give up her ethics for love; a stance that Raj does not understand. Don’t they need money to live?
And in a nod to Dickens (perhaps?), there is the scene where the ghost of Raj’s past appears as the reflection of the Raj of the present – the old Raj is poor, but he is happy, and proud of his honesty. So the question is asked – are you happy? The present-day Raj is forced to think – Is he? His heart answers for him, an anguished groan – No, he’s not! (How can anyone see this scene and claim Raj couldn’t act?!)
Nargis is Vidya, symbolising knowledge (she is a teacher), and the epitome of goodness. From her instinctive distrust of Raj to her self-respecting independence; from her shame at being at the club to her heartbreak as she pleads with Raj, Vidya is the voice of Raj’s conscience. She is also his redemption, her loving arms embracing the now-repentant Raj. Nargis played her with empathy, ensuring that she tread the fine line between being ‘ethical’ and turning one dimensional and diabetically sweet.

This was a film where the ‘vamp’ had more to do than just seduce the hero, and play arm candy. Nadira, as Maya, was temptress incarnate. (RK’s raakhi sister after this film, Nadira accused him of turning her into such a good vamp that she was only offered vamp-roles thereafter.) Seductive, fully aware of her charms and willing to use it, Nadira sparkled as never before in a role that was fleshed out beyond the stereotype. She is at once Raj’s future and the cause of his downfall, for how can he look behind when she stands before him in all her glory?
As with all of Raj Kapoor’s films, the ‘side’ characters have a life of their own. As a director, this was one of Raj Kapoor’s strengths – each and every character in his films had a role to play. Shree 420 had two very important ‘characters’ – Gangamai (Lalita Pawar) and Seth Sonachand Dharmanand (Nemo).

Lalita Pawar credits Raj Kapoor with giving her her first ‘good’ role. As ‘dilwaali Lady kelewali’, the veteran actress shone. Her warmth and goodness comes through in her first interaction with Raj, and she is his beacon of hope; like any mother, she welcomes her prodigal son back with open arms, and no judgement. (I love the way she lapses into Marathi whenever she speaks or into a colloquial mix.) 
Nemo, in the role of the opportunist Seth Dharmanand, plays the puppet-master, the man who pulls the strings behind the scene. He knows how to manipulate others’ desires for his own gain, and is not above a bit of chicanery, double-crossing, blackmail, or even murder, if it means more profits for himself.
Shree 420 was to enlarge upon the socio-realistic theme of Awara. If the former challenged the very basis of nature triumphing over nurture, the latter, using a platform of ethics vs. materialism, quietly emphasises that all choices have consequences. The ending was as powerful as the rest of the film – there is hope and optimism that one need not resort to underhand means in order to live a decent life.

A ‘message’ film, no doubt, but not one that clobbered us over the head with ‘the rich are bad, the poor are good’ trope that was so beloved of the time. (Yahi to dukh hai, Raj says in one scene; aaj gariib bhi gariib ko nahin pehchaanta.) The poor are not always downtrodden; there are also shirkers among them; people who leave jobs because, well, just ‘because’. They can also lie and cheat, though the consequences are different. Urban life in the 50s was realistically and sympathetically portrayed; the lines were drawn with a warmth that made us look anew at the paradoxes that the city hides, and at our own foibles.

After Awara, Shree 420 was another classic from the baton of a master. Raj Kapoor took KA Abbas' script (screenplay was in collaboration with VP Sathe), laced it with humour and emotion, inserted Shailendra’s and Hasrat Jaipuri’s lyrics brought to life by Shankar-Jaikishen’s foot-tapping score, and gave us a film that stood as an allegory for the choices before all of us. It is this humour, pathos and heartbreaking realism that turned Shree 420 into a well-known classic.

Like all of Raj Kapoor’s films, every song in the film came at a point in the script where the narrative needed the song to go forward. On his journey to a new life, Raj is confident that he can put his hard work and honesty (mehnat aur imaandaari), to good use, even if he is unsure where the journey will end.

When Vidya and he fall in love, there is happiness, there is hope for the future, and there is contentment. The rain, the two of them, a single umbrella, and love – that is enough.
If Raj’s morality falls prey to the temptation of quick wealth, then that is a choice that he makes; and the director is quick to underscore that scene with one of the best uses of song – Maya (Illusion) is the siren whose call turns him away from Vidya (Knowledge).

It is a choice that will have grave consequences for both Raj and Vidya, whose ramrod straight ethics make her recoil in disgust from the world of empty materialism. Later, her torn and bleeding heart runs after a drunken Raj, but she herself is a mute spectator to his inability to see the pitfalls ahead of him. Self-respecting Vidya will have nought to do with Raj such as he is, but she still loves him, and her human self begs him to ‘look back just once’.

When Raj, disillusioned with the emptiness of the world he has chosen, comes back to the people whom he has betrayed, he finds them singing an ode to love and loss. Raj stands alone as the song is carried by a handcart driver to a taangewaala to a milkman on his early morning run to Vidya as she sits desolate outside her home. When a broken-hearted Vidya sings Wahiin se door se hi, tu bhi ye kehde kabhi, maine dil tujhko diya, a disillusioned Raj joins his erstwhile companions with Duniya wohi, duniyawaale wohi, Koyi kya jaane kiska jahaan lut gaya... 

Shree 420 came four years after Awara. In the interim period, the RK banner only had one release – the ill-fated Aah, the film Raj Kapoor produced for, and acted in, for his assistant director of Aag, Barsaat and Awara – Raja Nawathe. However, Shree 420 brought Raj Kapoor, the director, back into sharp focus and cemented the cult status that he achieved earlier with Awara. Romance, drama, emotion, comedy, music – Shree 420 had it all in spades. Above all, this was the culmination of a director’s poetic vision. In the annals of Indian cinema, Shree 420 is yet another RK film that will rank among the finest.

Trivia time:
  • Nadira’s gown for in the last club scene was so tightly stitched that she couldn’t sit down at all until shooting ended for the day.
  • You can hear the tune of Kisi ki muskuraahaton pe ho nisaar in the background of one of the scene, while what would eventually be the theme song of Mera Naam Joker underlines another critical scene.
  • Jaikishen makes an appearance as one of the club regulars.
  • This was Sadhana’s first film appearance; she was one of the background dancers. (Or so they say. I tried very hard to spot her in the three songs that had background dancers, but failed.)
You can watch a crisp, clean print of this film on Tom Daniel's YouTube Channel. 


  1. Your writing is as lyrical as the movie itself. I remember I liked Shree 420 the most from Raj Kapoor's early films. Later Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahti Hai became my big favourite. Then Mera Naam Joker Part 1 and 2 became the ultimate.

  2. Subodh Agrawal18 July 2012 at 01:26

    I had seen the film years back and the scenes flashed back in my mind as I read your excellent review. You have made a very important point that songs in this film come at the right time and actually take the story forward. The opening song 'Mera joota hai Japani' establishes the personal of the hero; while 'Ramaiya vasta vaiya' is the culmination of the story when he comes back from his foray into the 'evil' world. But, isn't that true or all, or most, RK films?

  3. Arjun Narayanan18 July 2012 at 05:09

    Hi Anu, Shree420 is definitely among the best of RK. I like it even more than Awara for its entertainment value. While the cinematic finesse of Awara might not be recognised by all, it is easy to fall in love with this movie. And musically, it is his best, along with Bobby and Sangam. I guess people remember all its songs even today. I had written about it a few years back on my blog. Do have a look when time permits.

  4. Thank you, AK. (Big smile!) I'm glad you liked the post. Also glad to find someone else who also likes mera Naam Joker Part 1 & 2. :)

  5. Thanks, Subodh. I think Raj Kapoor had such an inherent feel of music that he never put in a song just for the sake of having a song. In fact, even for Shree 420, though he recorded Shaam gayi raat aayi he never used it. Thanks for reading.

  6. Hi Arjun, my favourite RK film keeps changing, but yes, Shree 420 is one of his best. I am a tad bit more partial to Awara myself; it is darker. Musically, I think Awara, Shree 420, Barsaat and even movies like Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Mera Naam Joker trumped both Sangam and Bobby.

  7. Reading such a detailed, describing quite important fine prints of the movie from the eyes of a watchful fan of the Hind Movies, no one would ever suspect that Anuji is, indeed, a self-proclaimed Raj Kapoor votary!

    Here we see the justice done, and done so well and balanced - to Raj Kapoor, the director - in terms of his careful importance to several 'minor characters, judicious blending of songs into the narrative, pouring the creative heart into filming of the songs, meticulous detailing that would go into his ‘sets’, full use of the B & W photography to heighten the natural beauty of Nargis’s features, never allowing his Actor override the Director, or vice versa etc
    I would also be an unhesitating votary to Raj Kapoor, the Actor.
    In fact, had he not been so acclaimed for his directorial passion and talent, he would still have been remembered as The Actor in his own right, and would stood the test of time and competition as such.
    One can certainly see maturity of his showmanship in Shree 420 vis-a-vis his maturing creative genius in Awara.
    Interestingly, he had given due opportunity to his colleagues to try their hands at film direction majority of subsequent RK banner movies, till Jis Desh Main Ganga Baheti Hai!

  8. Thank you, Ashokji, for so patiently reading through my very long post. :) As for Raj Kapoor the actor, no less a person than Satyajit Ray said that if RK hadn't turned to direction, he would have been as well-known as an actor as his contemporaries.

  9. I have a running difference with Richard on this. He is a great fan of Part 3 of Mera Naam Joker which I can not stand! - AK

  10. You must forgive Richard. Part 3 has Padmini, enough said. :) (And then, Richard will come and read this, and give me whatfor [as we used to say in Bombay]) :)

    And okay, who are you? You keep popping up under different pseudonyms. Which one is you?

  11. Hi Anu,
    Just traipsed by, and decided to read this one again! Such a moving and great movie! BTW, what does this mean: "Dil ka dard aur aankhon ke aansoo chhupaane ke liye ye bewaqoof maskare ka bhes bade kaam ke cheez hain"?"Thanks!

  12.  Hi Yves, thank you for traipsing through. I'm sorry to be replying so late, but I wasn't here.

    Dil ka dard aur aankhon ke aansoo chhupaane ke liye ye bewaqoof maskare ka bhes bade kaam ke cheez hain translates loosely into "The garb of a foolish jester helps to mask heartache and tears."

  13. Oddly enough I saw this RK (Banner) film very late , after watching all his movies till Prem Rog.Though Awara still remains my favorite Raj Kapoor film,Shree 420 's soundtrack is my favourite from all his films.

  14. BTW, have you heard about a film called 'Raju ban gaya Gentleman' starring SRK? the plot of that film does take some generous inspiration from Shree 420. I specially noted Amrita Singh doing a Nadira in that film though not a vamp. RBGG is a decent film and SRK was a much much better actor then and he didn't try aping anyone :).

  15.  Incidentally, Prem Rog was a very good film, much better than Satyam SHivam Sundaram, which was horrible! I don't have a favourite RK film - I think one is, then I watch the other and feel that that is my favourite. But I think if I'm pushed to choose, my choice would also be Awaara.

  16. Yes, and it was rather good. This was in the early part of SRK's career, and he used to be a good actor. Now he is jaded and cast into a slot from where he can't, or won't (or both) escape. And RBGG was inspired from Shree 420 - Aziz Mirza said so. It was a modern version, that is all. With some changes, of course. :) But it was a good enough film that stood on its own, and the cast did a good job.

  17. I watched this on DVD some time back. Loved the film. Nargis is so expressive. I can watch her for hours.

    The songs are wonderful. Pyar hua iqrar hua is my most favorite romantic song of ALL time.


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