Thursday, June 2, 2011

From the Vaults: Sree 420

This is a review I did AGES ago but I dug it out today for the Kapoor Family celebrations going on this month - hosted by!

Here's a tip from your friendly, neighborhood Filmi Girl: (this is important)

Do not literally sell your A+ honesty medal because it metaphorically means that you're selling your

Sree 420 is yet another of those classic films that make me wish for commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes featurettes of the sort that populate the The Criterion Collection. There is so much filmi history and iconic imagery here, that it can be difficult to step back and watch the film as a complete work of art and not as a collection of moments which have been referenced ever since.

In its Hindustani dil,
Sree 420 is a rags-to-riches story. Unlike rags-to-riches stories that we Westerners are used to, however, Sree 420 tells us that the rags really are preferable. Riches corrupt and those men who have them may be called "good" and "kind" by the press, but we know that they're really a big bunch of corrupt jerks. Nobody who has money is innocent. (Take that, Wall Street! Raj Kapoor just zung you bitches from beyond the grave!)

"Raj" is to Raj Kapoor as "Vijay" is to Amitabh Bachchan. We open with Raj's iconic tramp
heading to Bombay. He has everything - honesty, cheerfulness, a desire to work hard - but nothing which will help him to succeed. Raj swiftly finds that he needs a name, money, and the ability to scam people before he can make it Bombay. The rest of film finds him falling further and further away from his moral values as he earns more and more money until he is rescued from his depravity by the love of two women - nay, two goddesses - who show him the error of his ways and love him despite his brief journey into the underworld.

Raj Kapoor uses a lot of heavy-handed metaphors that work for those of us who love our frying pan/head style of imagery. For example, Raj on his way to Bombay is scared off by a snake.

That snake later finds its way into a saree bought with Raj's tainted rupees.

And, yes, Raj metaphorically sells his honesty early in the film.

He soon after loses the money to some card sharks who take advantage of his naivety. Little does Raj know that he'll be doing the same thing to others in just about an hour.

In one of the best staged sequences in the film, which is saying a lot because the film is packed with them, we see Seth Sonachand Dharmanand, a typical gas bag politician, orating opposite Raj. They're fighting for the same crowd with their words - both men are selling something equally vapid, but Raj has the charisma and knows the words (roti, naan, BREAD) to pull the crowd over to him.

What are "real issues" like history or religion when bread is involved? This was just one of many, many times I was reminded of Manoj Kumar's wonderful film,
Roti Kapada aur Makaan.

And what would any Raj Kapoor film be without ladies?! Oh my god! We had our typical for the time sainted heroine and sainted Mata-ji, Nargis and Lalita Pawar.

Nargis, of course, is wonderful. In her hands, the sainted heroine is very appealing and her good opinion is something for Raj to aspire to.

And who among us can resist her amazing chemistry with Raj Kapoor? Not me, that's for sure.

And Lalita Pawar made a career out of playing awful mother-in-laws but here she plays the glowing, loving Ganga Mai. (And I have to point out that she was only 39 here. Raj Kapoor was 31. Yes.)

On the flip side is vamptastic Nadira, as hotel "dancer" Maya. Now, Nadira is
not a great dancer, but she is a fabulous vamp. She totally plays Raj for a sucker until he figures out her game and flips the tables on her. Now, at one point she tells Raj that she is the only type of woman who could be interested in him now that he has money, but considering how fab Nadira is, that's not really an argument against turning 420.

And the woman had wonderful genes. This is 1955 and here she is in 1969 in O.P. Ralhan's Super-Genius Production

The visuals of
Sree 420 are an argument against colorizing old Bollywood films. The black and white is so atmospheric and lush. Take glittery Dream!Nargis for example.

What is ghostly and very etherial in black and white would look totally cheezy in color.

And these dancing girls don't need colorful outfits to be effective.

Raj Kapoor uses black and white very effectively to make everything seem like a heightened reality. Color would ruin that effect and make the film much more ordinary visually.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention little Rishi Kapoor's first moment on film playing one of Nargis and Raj's fantasy children. How lucky for us that she left Raj and spawned Sanjay Dutt, instead!

Isn't he adorable?!


Archee ologist said...

The names are metaphoric in themselves too. Maya is a mirage or illusion, often created by wealth and fame, and is deceptive. Ganga is the pure river mother, that cleanses you.

I have not watched the movie, but I am sure the subtle cultural references would have worked very well for the Indian audience of the time.

yves said...

Hi Filmi girl,
I was interested to read what you had to say about that monument of a film, and hadn't noticed that the little boy in the rain was Rishi!
Thanks a lot for everything!

PS: If you're interested:

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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