I was trying to think of what to do for 420, a super druggie movie or a super conman movie or what, and then I realized, it has to be Shree 420.
Awara was the big massive imaginative over the top Raj Kapoor film, the one that set of a bomb in the Hindi film industry and plowed a path through the world markets. But Shree 420 was the quiet one, the one with the smaller story and the smaller moments. And yet, to me, it is the more powerful film.
Shree 420 is also, strangely, the less realistic film. It doesn’t have the big fantasy sequence in it, but it also doesn’t have the gut wrenching reality of Awara’s emotions. The characters here suffer and struggle and all of that, but on a slightly higher plane, they are a little cleaner, a little more noble, a little better than us.
It’s reassuring to me in two ways. First, that people can strive to be better. And second, that even these better-than-us people can still make mistakes, still need help and direction to get on the right path.
It’s also just a really really beautiful film. Awara is splashy gutsy youthful beautiful, but Shree 420 shows a strong mature hand. It’s not about the wild costumes and big mansion sets, it’s about the simple beauty of life. A director and an actor and an actress and a writer who have all learned the power in the little things.
And that’s why it has stood the test of time, ultimately more than Awara has. The biggest romantic moment in Awara was a run on the beach followed by a slap and a passionate embrace. Or else it was an intense dreamy love song on a sail boat. And neither of those moments, powerful though they were at the time, have echoed down through the years like a simple man and a woman under an umbrella walking down an empty street.
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Years ago, somewhere, I heard a description of Beatles songs as the kind of song that you hear the first time but feel like you have known all your life. That is sort of what the plot of Shree 420 feels like. It is the first time this plot was used, but it already feels like a story you have known your whole life.
Raj Kapoor is a tramp, inspired by Charlie Chaplin, the type who walks the roads cheerfully and hurts for those he sees along the way. He comes to the big city and meets Nargis, a teacher who lives with her father and tries to do good for the community. He struggles to succeed, works hard, wants to make enough money to marry Nargis. But he can’t make it in the city. So finally he turns, takes a tempting easier path offered by Nadira, and starts making quick money. Only while making the money to be able to marry Nargis, he loses her. She is disgusted by his get rich quick schemes and how they pray on the poor. He is torn between his new successful life and his old love. And, finally, he chooses to walk away from it all. And is followed by Nargis, they are happier being poor and in love and honest than rich and corrupted.
This story has been told over and over again since Shree 420, the young innocent arriving in the city and being torn between two women, risking corruption, before finally choosing the right woman and the right path. It’s not quite a love triangle, or at least not only a love triangle. It’s a choice between two ways of life, not just two women. And what makes the story familiar, what makes it last, is that he always chooses the right way. He is tempted, but he overcomes temptation, learns to value the true things in life over the illusions.
Raj in Shree 420 is India. His introduction song is the immortal “Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani”. He is a young clean India with possessions borrowed from other countries, a brand new education, and a medal for honesty. But he has no money.
Nargis is one possible future. Service, poverty, living with the people. And Nadira is another, wealth and luxury and making a quick easy living. And, every time, our Raj, our India, chooses service and poverty. Not because it is the “right” thing, but because it is the only real thing. He gives up the money not for a larger moral reason, but because it is empty to him, it doesn’t make him happy.
There are so many movies in which the hero dreams of wealth, in which the happy ending is riches. And so few movies that show riches truly don’t make you happy. Not because of guilt or moral horror or any of that, but just because other things can make you happier. Will make you happier, if you let them.
There are still flaws in this movie, but it is one of those movies that the film is so good, even the flaws don’t feel like flaws. The ending is rushed and unclear, Raj has been convinced to be the face of a real estate scheme and discovers he has conned all his friends and reveals the truth of the scheme. But it is unclear exactly how this has happened or why or where all the money went.
Even before then, it’s not quite clear how Raj ends up working with Nadira, she sees him doing card tricks and suddenly asks him to be part of her scheme. It’s not clear how fast everything happens after that, or how it happens, or why, the construction is decidely iffy.
But the flaws fade away because the brilliance is so bright it hides them. We don’t mind the gaps and the impractical bits because we have “Pyar Hua” and “Mere Joote Hai Japani” and all the rest of it. And most of all, we have that story, that perfect immortal story.
The title of the film is “Shree 420”, referring to the penal code for trickery. The funny thing is, this film has no trickery. It is all as clear could be, as simple as could be. No tricks and no surprises. Just pure simple goodness.