Culture / Film / Hindi / India / Reviews

movie review: shri / shree 420

i’ve been trying to learn hindi. sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes it’s enlightening, brilliant, and satisfying. i can’t help but thinking that it would be easier if i heard it more in everyday life, so i could immerse myself in the sound of the language. so that got me thinking – why don’t i watch more indian cinema? and where better to start than the classics? i’m bound to pick up some words and maybe find some new favourites along the way too! if you have any to recommend me (i particularly love the good old b&w classics) please leave a comment.

if you’d like to watch the film free, there’s a link here. alright, review below!

shree 420 is a classic combination of social commentary, wit, comedy, drama and romance. it’s a film anyone can love; there is beautiful filming with an emphasis on the character’s emotions, their facial expressions – it makes it a touching romance, a personal comedy, and at times, a heartfelt tragedy.

raj kapoor is captivating as the poor, charming and witty man we first see set out on his journey to fame in bombay. he is determined that the world will come to him; that he shouldn’t need to give away his honesty to progress in the world, to rise to the heights (or fall?) of the successful. the first time he sets foot into the city he is forced to confront the hypocrisy of all those who are intent on looking after their own fortunes but laughing at everyone else. the rich are only willing to help the poor if they are virtuous without attempting to climb the social ladder the only way they know how – dishonesty and trickery. the poor are possessive of land because they sleep there and this is all they own. they are meek in their broken spiritedness and they think that with time, raj will become like them.

here is raj at the beginning of the film, singing the most famous and recognisable hit from shree 420, mera joota hai japani. here, he sings that his shoes are japanese, his trousers are english, his red cap is russian – but his heart is indian. this is the raj that we are rooting for, the raj that we hope will return throughout the film; the raj with an indian heart.

raj becomes cynical, preferring to laugh over everything and make himself out as a fool. nonetheless he’s determined, ambitious – and it’s this which constantly drives his character between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, or temptation and honesty. he is vulnerable, whereas his love vidya stands for wisdom, safety, conscious and the way to lead a good life without excess or moral taint.

as a romance genre film, it fulfils all the criteria. raj and vidya have perfect and believable chemistry on screen, made more tender by the restrictions of indian cinema in those days. it’s a fairytale romance – and although it’s overruled by the tone of societal critique, it’s hard to forget that beneath it all, this is a love story honesty, family … and between too people.

nargris as vidya is the epitome of perfect here; she is stately, feminine, modest, motherly, sensual, intelligent, wise. she is raj’s rock, sure of herself and her position. at one particularly poetically masterful point, video’s love – her weakness, her complete devotion –  almost leads her to abandon her moral standing but she stays steadfast. this is something we’ve all felt in relationships … and the reliability makes the moment even more sensational.

at first raj sees his accidental progression upwards as a slight against all these people who had cast him down before. he is oblivious to the fact that he is becoming just like them – the charmer has been charmed & blinded by our ‘villain’ disgusted as beauty and seduction, maya. she is an illusionist; at the first, she presents raj as a rich man with a talent for cards to progress her own standing, only to cast him away as soon as the mask is off. predictably, she is only too willing to use him again … to wrap him up in her spells and her enchantments. nadria is stunning here; a voluptuous, modern vision of everything a man could desire … at least in wealth and image. her eyes sparkle with delight and turpitude. she is haughty, self assured, but ultimately, weak.

the song mud mud ke na dekh, despite being incredibly easy to sing along to even as a beginner in hindi, really sums up her character and solidified her role as a sneering, haughty mistress.

a huge difference i noticed between this classic indian cinema and modern-day bollywood or western musicals is that each song is important. they are sung to convey meaning, to be beautiful, soulful, to be art. they are not simply entertainment or fillers for time. each song takes place at a vital point in the film, and most signify some sort of character change or symbolism. a few other favourite moments i have:

  •  when vidya is teaching her school children in ichak dana bichak dana. it’s a catchy song and at first seems to not serve any purpose, but when raj joins in you realise it serves as a metaphor.
  • ramayya vastawaiyya: this is a cheerful, cliche song which is juxtaposed really nicely within the movie. raj leaves maya visibility disgusted and disillusioned with the falsities of riches. outside, he sees people on the pavements merrily dancing in their simple clothes and their eyes full of love and laughter; they don’t have money, or even homes – but they have contentment and their hearts are free of guilt or shame. it’s a pivotal moment for everyone. this is one of my favourite scenes of the entire movie!
  • the poetic but not so popular masterpiece that is o jaanewale. it’s far above it’s time in terms of cinema inventiveness, not to mention effects. it’s a masterful stroke of genius to convey this emotion and struggle. it’s also one of the only openly sad songs in the movie, which sets it apart.
  • the countless comedic moments that raj shares, particularly with the small role of vidya’s father.


the ending of the film is explosive and climatic. it’s drama at it’s finest – and i won’t reveal the ending to you, but it’s immensely symbolic as a death to innocence, naivety .. and faith.

all in all, the story is enthralling, multilayered, and as a whole, well acted. taken at base level, it’s an entertaining masterful piece of indian cinema. look a little deeper and you will find many interesting topics to debate: honesty within poverty, honesty within the rich, the use of facades, masks, faces.



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