|Nargis (left) and Raj Kapoor (right). Image courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.|
"The film’s first half is decidedly Chaplin-esque: Raju is a wise fool, a variation on Chaplin’s underdog tramp. Its second half emphasizes the plight of the jolly have-nots, contrasted with the misdeeds of the evil rich, and is clearly influenced by Frank Capra’s social comedies of the 1930s” (Elliott Stein). Referring to the Indian penal code statute for fraud, Shree 420 is perhaps Kapoor’s most famous incarnation of his tramp persona.
Arriving in the big city to make his fortune, country bumpkin Raju (Kapoor) is soon introduced to the urban underworld. Wooing the honest schoolteacher Vidya (Nargis) while secretly dipping into a life of gambling and petty fraud, Raju is inexorably drawn into more dangerous criminal territory, and Vidya rejects him. As he finally rouses the poor into action against the rich parasites who prey off them, he reveals to Vidya that “he wears the mask of an entertainer to conceal his nerve endings, his pain and disappointments.”
The post-Partition changes to the major Indian cities loom large over the film’s tragicomic situations, with the teeming city streets a vivid backdrop for the film’s legendary musical numbers.
These screenings of SHREE 420 are part of MoMA's Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema film series, which runs through Sunday January 15th.