Shree 420: Why this Masterpiece from Raj Kapoor needs a revisit

The film asks: “Why are lectures on truth and honesty always given to the poor? While the rich live by cheating and continue to gather wealth?”

The nation-wide Coronavirus lockdown has highlighted the precarity and the struggles of migrant workers, who move from the rural countryside to urban centers in search of employment and better chances of socio-economic mobility. Many Bollywood movies have explored the journey and experiences of such workers; one of these is Raj Kapoor’s 1955 film, Shree 420. The film opens with the protagonist, Raj, travelling on a countryside road to the city of Bombay. Through Raj’s interactions with the city and its people, the themes of corruption, nationalism, class, and capitalism are brought up in this movie.

The movie shows us the city’s crowded streets, with people hurrying about their own business with no regard for the others around them. This disregard prompts Raj to ask, “is everyone in this city deaf?”. A beggar on the street presents Bombay as made up of “buildings of cement and hearts of stone”, suggesting the insensitivity and apathy of the city folk towards the labourers and migrants living there.

 

Still from the movie

Raj encounters the harshness of the city immediately when he finds out that there is no work available, and that one can only live by ‘420’ (cheating). He is deceived and robbed on the street right when he comes to the city – which seems to convey that in the brutal atmosphere of Bombay, one has to either become a conman or get conned. For immigrants like Raj, who have nothing and nobody in the city, survival depends on the goodwill and kind-heartedness of other migrant workers, who form a loose community.

His ‘pure’ and honest nature when he first arrives is perceived by the city-dwellers as foolish naiveté. The necessity to be deceitful is highlighted even before he reaches the city when he manages to hail a car ride by pretending to be unconscious. This theme of honesty and deceit is brought out early in the film when deception fetches him a car ride but being truthful gets him thrown out on the road. Instances such as these show that the corrupting nature of the city is not so much due to ‘bad influence’, but rather due to bare necessity.

However, it isn’t easy to completely justify corruption on the basis of necessity, because characters like Vidya show us that there is an element of personal agency too. One of the first transactions that Raj makes in the city is to sell or pawn away his honesty (a gold medal), which is symbolic. This can be read as the need to be deceitful in order to survive, or, as an act which displays Raj’s willingness to submit to the temptations of the city. It could also convey that in the exploitative system of capitalism, there is always a trade-off between gaining wealth and adhering to one’s principles/ethics.

However, what is interesting is Raj’s explanation for why he chose the path of deceit. This highlights the close relationship between ‘corruption’ and class. He asks: “Why are lectures on truth and honesty always given to the poor? While the rich live by cheating and continue to gather wealth?” This idea is also reflected in Maya’s comment to him that; cheating on a small scale makes one a crook, but cheating on a larger scale makes you a philanthropist. It points to the exploitation inherent to a capitalist economy, which is usually not recognised by society in general or even the law in particular. This makes us question the narrow definition of ‘cheating’ under Section 420 (IPC), and points to the class interests which are favoured by it. That further raises the question of who is the real ‘420’, which is answered by the film’s title, Shree 420; hinting at the ‘respectable’, gentlemen’ class of crooks.

The theme of ‘class’ is prevalent throughout the film, especially through the imagery of the cramped footpath right in front of a grand, spacious mansion, which conveys the vast inequality between the classes. The film shows how one is pushed towards becoming self-centred and prioritizing self-interest by the structures of society; Raj states that “when [he] was starving, homeless, and begging for work, the world didn’t care…so why should [he] care about the world now [when he is rich]?”.

The film also conveys how the working classes too have bourgeois aspirations of marriage, wealth, luxury, and ‘honour’/’respect’. But these aspirations, for a majority, are unattainable. A corrupt businessman in the film states that he is “not selling houses, but selling a dream”; perhaps this shows us how the capitalist class not only exploits the lower classes as labourers, but also takes advantage of them as consumers of a bourgeois lifestyle.

The idea of nation and national identity is also significantly explored in the movie. The lyrics of the song, ‘Mera Joota Hai Japani’, explore the sentiment of nationalism in a globalising era where Raj’s shoes, pants, topi are imported, but his ‘heart’ is ‘Hindustani’. But does being ‘Hindustani’ really mean anything for Raj? The same nationalist sentiment is also invoked by a wealthy, bourgeois politician to advertise and sell tooth-powder in the film. This reminds us that nationalism can be and is co-opted by the bourgeoisie and the market to serve their own interests.

While the film provides a good critique of socio-economic inequality, perhaps it falls short at the end in presenting the path to equality as more focused ‘moral’, individual reform rather than through structural change.

Read Next: Podcast on the Migrant Workers Report during the Lockdown

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