Directed by Raj Kapoor
In lists of recommended Bollywood films that include only one Raj Kapoor film, Awara is usually the film chosen. But Shree 420 shows his style just as deeply, and the plot and music are just as moving. Awara’s plot feels more realistic, though, and because it deals with law and rule, it carries more weight. Raj and Nargis again star as the main male and female protagonists with the sorry fate of society and Raj’s particular actions complicating their eventual union. Here Raj plays his Chaplin-esque character as a man who comes to the city with a Bachelor’s degree, a positive attitude and not much else to recommend him. He dresses frugally but is ready to sell any of his meager possessions to help get himself set up for a job or even feed another hungry mouth. Nargis is a poor teacher (she teaches children who pay to gather around her—not in a classroom) who crosses paths with Raj, and one of their first interactions regards him selling his certificate of honesty to the pawn shop. She makes a remark about how sad your state of life must be if you will sell your “honesty,” and the theme of honesty is thus begun. The way it is referred to may be more obvious than we are used to today, but it doesn’t feel cheap or blatant or gross. Raj soon gets himself involved with a ring of card crooks and then a housing Ponzi scheme, and it all comes to quite the fun climax (I won’t ruin it). One of the most affecting scenes is when all the poor people who invested their money in order to have nicer houses built for them come to demand the return of their tiny savings. The promise of standard housing for all is indeed a seductive vision.
Song Highlights: Shankar-Jaikishan wrote the delightful score for this film. There are many standout songs, and most of them will be easily recognizable to any Indian. Raj begins the film strutting down a dusty road, singing about how his pants are Japanese, his boots are English, his hat is Russian, but his heart is Indian in “Mere Joota hai Japani.” Nargis sings a lesson to her children while Raj looks on; the way the song is incorporated into the scene feels organic—there is no abrupt bursting into something such as “do, a deer” or “getting to know you.” Because of how her character is set up and the way she acts during the song, it even seems reasonable that she actually planned this lesson as a song (“Ichak Dana Beechak Dana”). But most remarkable of all is the song “O Jaanewale.” This song achieves what most Bollywood songs and frankly any musical inclusion in a film or show do not achieve: perfect emotional resonance. Raj is leaving Nargis’ character after choosing the deceitful way of life. Her body remains watching him leave, but a ghost-like body springs out of her and moves towards him, stretching out its arms and singing with deep yearning. The real body of Nargis, though, remains in its unyielding pose. This is most like how a song could actually happen in real life; our physical selves do what we think is best, but our hearts’ bodies move on unhindered, doing ridiculous, laughable, unwise things. The other songs in the movie are wonderful, but there isn’t room to describe them.
Rating: Raj’s films are usually very accessible to Western audiences.
Library Collection: If you can only collect one Raj Kapoor film, I suppose you can follow most lists and get Awara, but you are missing out on one of Raj’s other classics (which has better music than Awara, I might add). This is a good choice for both historical and entertainment collection purposes.