Shree 420 (Mister 420) is a morality tale on the importance of living an honest life and the difficulty of succeeding in a big city, specifically Mumbai (or Bombay as it was known then).
The 1955 film sees Raj Kapoor play an honest tramp arriving in Mumbai from Allahabad. Tricked and robbed, he joins the destitute and unemployed who sleep by the roadside.
Eventually he lands a steady, but exhausting, laundry job. A twist in the plot sees him meet a femme fatale character and begin working for her as a card sharp (naturally); thus he abandons his early thoughts of achieving success solely through honest toil.
Meanwhile, the moral centre of the film – and source of Raj’s eventually redumption – is Vidya (played by Nargis), who runs a school for poor children but is close to running out of money.
The film is very much its leading man’s film. Produced at RK Studios, by RK Films, by producer and director Raj Kapoor. Even Kapoor’s character is called Raj, as was the case in his 1951 film Awaara.
The Raj in Shree 420 is more of a literal tramp more the character Kapoor played in Awaara, but like that film Shree 420 again showcases his Chaplinesque humour. He’s not always a totally sympathic character but, like the ‘Raj’ played by Kapoor in Awaara, you know he’ll come good in the end.
A major part in the film is played by its location. A big city, the film says, is a place that grinds you down and loves to see you fail. “This is Bombay, brother. Everyone laughs when someone falls flat,” as a minor character puts it after a succession of people slip on a banana skin.
There is a lovely visual moment when Nargis splits into two images – a ghostly spirit, that implores raj to return, and a body that remains implacably resolute as he walks away drunk. A similar trick is used when the newly-rich Raj in black tie dress sees his earlier tramp-like incarnation appear before him in the mirror to ask him what he’s become.
The film has a particularly memorable song in the form of ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, shown in the YouTube video at the top of this post, and one of the few songs from the classic Bollywood films in this season to have stuck in my mind. But, like it’s central character, the film is rather too preoccupied by the dishonestly-won good life.
Finally, the title refers a man who is a ‘420’, that is, a crook – referring to Article 420 of the Indian criminal code.