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Shree 420

Shree 420

By Patrick Samuel • August 23rd, 2015
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
R.K. Films Ltd

Original release: September 6th 1955
Running time: 168 minutes

Original language: Hindi

Director and producer: Raj Kapoor
Writers: Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, V.P. Sathe
Music by: Shanker-Jaikishen

Cast: Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Nadira, Nemo

Shree 420

There are so many of Indian’s classic films that continue to be talked about, written about and still shown today, but there’s one in particular that never fails to get a mention when the word “timeless” is used.

Released in 1955, Shree 420 tells the story of orphaned country boy Ranbir Raj (Raj Kapoor) who arrives in Bombay ready to make his fortune. Unfortunately, he has nothing to make it with; all he has are his torn Japanese shoes, English trousers, a Russian cap, and a Hindustani heart.

Looking not at all that different from Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Ranbir is undeterred. He meets Vidya Shastri (Nargis), a poor but virtuous school teacher and the pair fall madly in love. Things go well for them and before long Ranbir finds himself a job, but when greedy industrialist Seth Sonachand Dharmaanand (Nemo) and Maya (Nadira) notice he has a talent for playing cards they take him to a casino where he cleans up with a nice profit.

Seeing this as a lucrative opportunity, Seth and Maya take advantage of Ranbir and as he starts to accumulate wealth for himself, Vidya decides to leave him, seeing that the man she fell in love with has become corrupted, a trickster who cheats at cards, putting his material wants before the needs of others. When Seth comes up with a plan to scam even the poor out of the little money they have with the promise of cheap homes, Raj realises then what he has become and what he has lost as a result of his greed. Trying to put matters right though may cost him even more but it’s the right thing to do nevertheless.

The themes covered in Shree 420 have extremely important social values that are as relevant now as they were nearly 60 years ago. The idea of knowledge and illusion being equally attractive but with one leading to downfall is embodied with Vidya whose name is Sanskrit for “knowledge” and Maya, meaning “illusion”. Even at the beginning we see Ranbir pawing his medal from college which was awarded to him for integrity. These are both points Jeannine Woods covers in her book:

The film duly circulates around the themes of (urban) fraudulence and corruption competing with (traditional) honour and integrity. Raj (Kapoor) arrives in Bombay to find work; his initial optimism is crushed by his experience in the city, where, a beggar tells him at the outset, ‘only money is sacred’. Raj pawns the medal he received for integrity at college; his descent into the world of dishonesty and corruption comes between him and Vidya (meaning ‘knowledge’, played by Nargis), the woman he has fallen in love with. He is seduced by the world of corrupt wealth promised to him by the vampish Maya (meaning ‘’illusion’) and becomes involved in fraudulent schemes. [1]

 Shree 420

Like Awara, Shree 420 plays into our ideas of what it means to be an essentially a good person faced with bad choices. The path Ranbir takes does lead to his downfall and while he loses much more than he bargained for, his redemption comes in that moment he decides to put things right.

The question we’re then faced with is “does this act of moral goodness absolve him from his previous wrong-doings?” I don’t think it fully absolves him from responsibility, but recognising his errors and choosing to put it right is definitely a step in the right direction. Far too often we see people who know that something is wrong but are too frightened to take the next step, they are frightened to lose what they have, frightened of the consequences and frightened of the punishment they might receive.

The title itself ‘Shree 420’ refers to judicial law:

Section 420 was the section of the Penal Code established by the British in India relating to fraud, and in an illustration of the continuities commonly seen in the colonial and post-colonial state apparatus, fraud is covered under section 420 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, understood in the popular imagination to refer not only to small-scale fraud but also to business and political corruption. [1]

  • Woods, J. (2010) Visions of Empire and Other Imaginings: Cinema, Ireland and India 1910-1962, Peter Lang Pub Inc [1]

It’s a film of immense ideas and Kapoor remains one of my favourite filmmakers just for the way he incorporated these details into a narrative that’s so satisfying as a film experience.

Hardly any of India’s current filmmakers, or even Western filmmakers, address themes like these for modern-day audiences – at least mainstream ones, which is something I feel is lacking in our cinema today. They might come in HD, 3D or whatever the next D is, but they certainly don’t have the depth. This is probably one of the main reasons Shree 420 remains so timeless.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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