Shri 420: Nationalist Discourse & Film Narrative

Shree 420Shri 4202 names itself in a contradiction. Article 420 of the postcolonial Indian Penal Code provides juridical sanction for the prosecution of acts of cheating or fraud; Shri is a standard appellation of respect, naming a modern Mister, or denoting a gentleman. And this gentlemanly cheat is, in the text of the film examined here, embodied in the equally ambiguous figure of the subaltern hero Raj Kapoor — the tramp bumbling his way through the gullies and crowded, inhospitable streets of that favoured location of the 1950s popular Hindi cinema: the urban metropolis of Bombay, the privileged place for the production of the newly independent nation’s identity and the social relations of its capitalist modernity1

Raju: Main aapki saari Mumbai kharid lunga! (I’ll buy your entire city!)

Shopowner: Mumbai ko koi nahi khareed sakt, Mumbai sabko khareed leti hai aur apna kaam nikaalkar kisi raddi waale ki dukaan mein phek deti hai (Nobody can buy this city, it buys everyone, gets some work out of them, then tosses them in some pawnshop).

Hailed by cinema audiences throughout the new republic in 1955 — and later raised to a semi-official emblem of ideological affinity with the Soviet Union3 — Raj Kapoor’s tramp-hero Raju was the cinematic embodiment of an unique historical conjuncture of the new Indian republic. The educated unemployed, the urban proletariat, Partition refugees, and the reformist petty bourgeoisie could all identify with Raju4, newly arrived in the steamy concrete jungle of Bombay, following the noisy and irresistible path of the new expansive capitalism — which Marx described so well in the context of bourgeois Europe a century before Raj Kapoor — in search of distinction, prosperity, and an urban experience of modernity.

In such expectation, Raju is faced with the reality of the alienation and corruption of the city, and the price to pay if one is to become the prince of this new world: that he must pawn his honesty, must turn and never look back to the gemeinschaftlich social relations of the moral-cultural community from which prerepublican nationalist discourse had announced its critique of colonial modernity. In this essay, I propose to synchronically examine the film Shri 420 and the tensions of the nationalist discourse5 its text signifies. The ideal moral framework of V.P. Sathe and K.A. Abbas’s screenplay6 dialectically pairs moral and political antitheses, normative polarities mediated by the subaltern hero Raju-Rajkumar, who negotiates the contradictions of nationalist ideology, unfolding a radical social critique overdetermined in a typically cinematic manner by the moral-normative framework of the nationalist Hindi film.

Shri 420, a name that rings with the joyous irony and homelessness of the modern Indian metropolis, names a contradiction between the moral-cultural norms of nationalist discourse and the legal-juridical norms of its republican social formation. The subject-agent of the new society could never be fully disciplined and subjectivated from the non-discursive, patchwork identity of the subaltern; the emancipatory promise of nationalist modernity and individuation into its civil society, its cosmopolitan clothing of the subaltern hero as a reconstructed citizen, is represented as incommensurable with the moral-cultural norms of the national community. Thus for Raju to become Rajkumar, for the ruled-over subaltern to himself become a ruling prince, is to forget that his heart should always remain Indian. In this essay, I hope to analyse the text of the film to trace its moral critique of civil society, the structural dichotomies of the text and overdetermined contradictions of its plot, all along highlighting the relationship between popular film narrative and nationalist discourse in the early republican period.

The history of the Hindi cinema, like many of the forms of modern Indian public culture, is intimately bound up with pre- and postcolonial nationalist cultural politics and the emergence under colonial rule of a determinate cultural-political sphere that was representatively public, a space in which nationalism sought to contest the disciplinary authority of colonialism, thereby evolving a distinct modern cultural form. It is a truism that one of the most successful arenas in which nationalist cultural hegemony was achieved was on the screen space of the film, the arena of representation where image and spectator combined in a reciprocal genesis of cinematic object (viz. the screen image, the film narrative) and nationalist subject (viz. the film-going spectator). Defining and celebrating a modern, national, Indian identity was the obsession of the popular Hindi films of the early republican period, when the new state could effectively promote its ideology of development and modernisation of social forms through the ideological state apparatus of films, which, following Madhav Prasad, I shall refer to as the cinematic apparatus, or cinematic state apparatus.7 In these films, it is the republican state that is presupposed as “the political ground of cultural practice…situating the texts within existing frameworks or suggesting, through the modes of narration employed, alternative conceptions of the polity.”8 The state posits the ground of possibility for Raju’s narrative function as subaltern hero, centring him as historical subject, and as an individual representative of the collective subject of the nation.

If we for a moment turn to an examination of these grounds of possibility of nationalist cinema and its heroic subjectivity, we can begin to problematise the representative function the cinematic apparatus plays in nationalist discourse and its relations of power vis à vis the subaltern.

The fifties Hindi cinema deployed both a progressive message of radical social transformation typical of Nehruvian official nationalism and its elite discourse, and a pedagogical mode of transmission of these radical messages addressed to the subaltern spectator. This “double address, symptomatic of the gap between an inherited state structure and unreconstructed social relations” was conditioned by a nexus between the film industry and the state wherein the state ensured a protective role to a cinematic apparatus that staged its plots and narratives within an unreconstructed pre-republican aesthetic of the subaltern lifeworld.

Traditional gemeinschaften of political and cultural authority mediated the relations between the state and its citizen-subjects, and the agents of the state — in our film, the several appearances of the police — came on the scene not to transform society or even impose a repressive will, but simply to ratify the decisions made by the principal characters. “In figuring the state as a ‘rubber stamp’ that endorsed the power relations and moral order of the as yet unexpropriated colonial elite, these films remained faithful to the prevailing realities.” Thus, “the progressive nature of the message was often negated by the paternalist mode of its transmission.”9

Prasad’s notion of a double address, a kind of structural dichotomy, gives us a clue to the structuring of power relations in the new republican democracy that the state was to herald after the promulgation of the 1949 Constitution. As Sudipta Kaviraj has perceptively noted, this republican social formation was constitutionally a representative democracy, but more importantly, “our democracy was deeply representative.”10 The representativity of the cinematic apparatus, acting as a class and cultural filter for continued elite control of the social world, would normalise the interlocking of the image and the spectator within nationalist discourse, constituting a subject through the nationalist narrative of the popular films, narratives negotiated by the subaltern hero, though written and produced by elites framing a plot and representing a subaltern optics on the negotiation of the modern.11

Having established the ideological function of the cinematic state apparatus, the structural dichotomy of its double address, and the mediation of elites in the discursive constitution of subaltern spectators as nationalist subjects, we must venture several remarks on the relationship between the film narrative and its nationalist discourse. When speaking of nationalism, it is difficult to ignore the centrality of the narrative form to its constitution of a collective self through what Kaviraj has called a “narrative contract”: a community is invoked through the telling of a story, the transaction of a narrative that is “a technique of staying together, redrawing [the addressed community’s] boundaries or reinforcing them…Nationalism clearly uses the contractual character of the narrative to extend its ideological message.”12

The nationalist Hindi film, in the republican period, is one of the most notorious sites for the telling and retelling of this unifying narrative of the nation, a space in which the ideal of nationhood constantly provides its own justification.13 This narrativizing discourse of nationalism requires a subject in order to fix its ideological message enclosed in and framed by the objectivity of the narrative.14

The enabling presupposition of narrativity in discourse is, as mentioned earlier, the state, or to be more specific, the law of the state. Narrativity, according to Hayden White, “whether of the fictional or factual sort, presupposes the existence of a legal system against which or on behalf of which the typical agents of a narrative account militate. And this raises the suspicion that narrative in general…has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”15

The narrative function of the hero in the film presupposes the power of the state, interlocking this authority with the moral norms of the national community addressed by the narrative. Thus though the state hardly ever appears in our film, it is a subject of obsessive concern in the moral character of the hero, the concrete narrative representation of the state’s abstract legal personality. Narrativity “is a intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine.”16

Representing the moral under the aspect of the aesthetic, the narrativising discourse of the nationalist cinematic apparatus reaches into the fables and epics of premodern forms of entertainment to describe an ideal moral universe which structures the plot of the popular Hindi film. And through an operation unique to modern disciplinary technologies, the moral legitimacy of this mythic universe is sought to be identified with the legal-ideological norms of nationalist discourse, and the political authority of the modern state. To anticipate my later argument, we must here note the complex dialectic between the narrative subjectivation of the hero in the negotiation of the modern, and the location of the political ground of possibility for the transformation of the narrative community’s gemeinschaften into gesellschaft.

Paradoxically, the project of nationalist modernity to create rational forms of associations of interest must justify itself by resorting to the moral universe of the unreconstructed subaltern community, to the language of kinship and sacrifice, of principles and moral solidarity, rather than to the purely rational calculation of individual interests and pursuit of needs. Within this complex contradiction we can locate the critique of civil society in the dialectic between the moral-cultural norms of the national community and the legal-juridical norms of capital.17 But let us first examine the film in more detail, with attention to the theme of authority in the text, and the ideal moral universe it constructs in the name of being Indian.

The Film

Shri 420, as a text of the early republican era, is a rich fund of commentary not only on themes of authority and moral legitimacy, but also on questions of language, gender, class and other identities, not to mention being a technically superb film which was a landmark in the Bombay cinema. Both beginning and closing somewhere in the rural hinterland — it seems not to matter where precisely, other than being four-hundred twenty miles from Bombay — the film opens with the tramp Raju feigning illness and collapsing on a road in front of a speeding Ambassador. The fat and haughty businessman-politician Dharmanand Sonachand Seth, instructing his driver to pick up the comatose vagabond, offers Raju his assistance. Speaking of his uprightness and respect for those less fortunate, Seth is hoodwinked by Raju who returns to consciousness and claims that he was only soliciting a ride because he had no money for a train ticket.

Outraged, the Seth berates the fraud who would take advantage of his large-heartedness and, throwing Raju out of his car, berates the cheat and advises he reform his ways. The themes of the legality and deception, and the class and cultural barriers between rich and poor, are set in the opening scene, and the narrative is framed by the representation of national identity. The famous song at the beginning celebrates the transnational Indian identity, proclaiming to the world mer; jUt; hw j;p;nIÚ ye pN$lUn E˛iGlSt;nIÚ sr pe l;l $opI •sIÚ ifr &I idl hw ihNdUSt;nI. Similarly, the film closes in presumably the same rural location, concluding with Raju and his heroine Vidya holding hands, while gazing on the Bombay skyline and humming the refrain mer; idl hw ihNduSt;nI.

In this narrative frame of nationalism, the hero Raju is symbolic of the negotiation of modernity in this big, bad new world — the “nyI duiny;” and “nyI ijNdgI” of the modern city. Raju arrives in the city and is forced to pawn his possessions, is robbed, and is adopted into a community of street dwellers. Manhandled by the police, haplessly searching for friendship and fired by dreams of wealth and the respect denied to him by the impersonal and brutal city — as well as the love of the heroine Vidya Devi, played by Nargis — Raju finds work as a laundry-man. A low-paying job with no prospects for mobility and fulfilment of his dreams of an honourable domestic life with the woman of his dreams, Raju is tempted by the vamp Maya Devi into a life of gambling, drinking and promiscuity, and is soon re-introduced to the Seth at the gambling table.

While recognising the cheat he once knew, the Seth remarks on his abilities as a businessman — seemingly synonymous with the swindler and gambler — and offers him an advance to become a business and political partner. Seeing an opportunity to impress Vidya and rescue himself and his heroine from the poverty which is at their back, Raju — henceforth dubbed Rajkumar by Maya Devi — enters the portals of the new urban world of free-wheeling card tables, cabarets and concerts, and the “business” of swindling the poor and aping the social habits of the Western leisure classes.

Vidya, however, rejects Raju’s change of clothes and name, and the money and luxury he brings to her, and Raju is soon broken by her rejection and the corruption he sees about him. The closing scenes of the film focus on the Seth’s plan to swindle the poor of their savings by selling them dreams — a public housing scheme called Janata Ghar, using Raju as his frontman for the collection of money from the hero’s former subaltern family dwelling on the public pavements. Of course the Seth has no intention of fulfilling his promise for the welfare of the homeless poor, and Maya attempts to flee with the money, promising Raju a cut if he goes away with her — away from the authorities, from the greedy Seth who only used him, and, importantly, she begs him to leave India.

Broken by the thought of leaving himself — as an Indian — Raju returns to his old moral courage and attempts to run off with the money himself in order to return it to the poor crowds gathered at the gates of the Seth’s mansion, awaiting their new homes and chanting “ijNdb;d” to Raju and the Seth. The denouement comes with chase scene for possession of Raju’s suitcase containing the money and a gun, at the end of which Raju enacts his own death at the hands of a greedy Seth who grabs the bag of money and shoots Raju. Playing dead and thereby attracting the attention of the anxious crowds and police, the Seth and his cronies are implicated in the theft of the money, as Raju returns to life to deliver the final verdict on their guilt to the police. The criminals are sentenced at the High Court, and Raju delivers a sermon to the gathered subaltern rabble, counselling them to work hard and be suspicious of the conspiracies of the corrupt, advising them to give their money to the Government which will seek its proper redistribution and ensure the welfare of the unhoused nation.

The Moral Universe of Hindi Cinema

Rosie Thomas has argued that in the genre conventions of the Hindi film as they have evolved historically in the Indian cinema, popular films are structured around contradictions and tensions which are resolved within the parameters of an “ideal moral universe”. Within this moral-normative framework of melodrama are described the “paradigms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (or expected and unacceptable) forms of behaviour and requires that the forces of good triumph over evil.”18

This good-evil opposition, in our film, is conflated with another set of ideas in which good and moral is associated with the rural, the Indian, the nationalist woman Vidya, and the footpath tea shop; and an evil, decadent Other is constructed of the urban metropolis, foreign manners and clothing, the vamp and temptress Maya, the cabaret and gambling den. It is the narrative function of the hero to negotiate the two poles of the good-evil opposition and its multifarious associations and, following the rules of melodrama, allow the good to prevail. “The emphasis of the film is on how things will happen, not what will happen next, on a moral ordering to be (temporarily) resolved rather than an enigma to be sought through tight narrative denouement.

The Hindi film can be regarded as a moral fable that involves its audience largely through the puzzle of resolving some (apparently irresolvable) disorder in the ideal moral universe.” The objectivity of the narrative is concealed in the subjective unfolding of the discourse centred on the hero, who follows the rules of melodrama. Thus the negotiation of polarities and their resolution by a hero politically grounded in the state, I want to argue, is a negotiation both of the moral universe of the film narrative and the normative framework of the nation’s discourse on modernity — a discourse which constitutes the audience involved as nationalist subjects.19

Film Analysis

The plot of the film, then, unfolds from the transgression of the ideal moral universe inscribed in the genre and the hero’s negotiation of the moral resolution of this violation of normality. Thus our film can be separated into three stages: the scenes before Raj’s reconstruction as Rajkumar in which the setting and major characters of the film are described; secondly, the scenes of transgression beginning with Raju’s entry into the glittering, corrupting new world of gambling tables, big business and immorality; finally ending with his renunciation of his new world and return to Vidya and to the moral-cultural community of being Indian, an act which closes the narrative and resolves the discourse of the film.

The first stage of the film centres on the institution of the pawnshop, where Raju and Vidya meet upon his confused arrival in Bombay; and on the setting of the crowded footpath where Raju finds a community of fellow unemployed labourers and an adoptive mother, Ganga Ma, the banana-seller (“kel;v;lI”, whom he also addresses as “idlv;lI”). The proprietor of the pawnshop, a bearded Muslim, is addressed in kinship terms as uncle (“k;k;”) and calls Vidya his daughter (“be$I”), asking after her father’s health and displaying concern for her future marriage. The banana-seller is implicitly treated as a mother as she gives Raju bananas at the market and refuses payment, commenting that she will treat the loss as if her son had taken them.

Later, Ganga Ma intervenes when the footpath dwellers initially greet Raju in a hostile way. She disperses the unkind crowd and takes them to task for treating him in such a brutal way, and they subsequently adopt and address him as a brother. This kinship idiom for nonkin relations is an ideal mode of social relations associated with the good and the moral, and contrasted with the evil mode social relations in Raju’s inhumane treatment by a gang of card-sharks who steal his money, the bustling crowds of Bombay which laugh at his misfortune, and the selfish Seth who lives in a palatial mansion, under whose gates the footpath dwellers reside. Importantly, the footpath is acknowledged as the property of the state, and its actual control is given over to the mother figure Ganga Ma. The identification of the state with this ideal mode of social relations in kinship or kinship-like terms — especially motherhood and the controlled sexuality of Ganga Ma and Vidya — is crucial to nationalism’s location of moral authority in the language of communal and family solidarity, and against a reckless individualism which does not respect kinship or community ties, and is represented as unjust and dishonest.

The second, transgressive stage of the film is signalled with Raj’s employment and subsequent social mobility. The laundry is notoriously named the Jay Bharat Laundry, a site for the transformation of the patchwork subaltern identity of Raju, dressed in rags and unemployed, into the well-paid and sartorially respectable Rajkumar, a gentleman and wheeler-dealer. It is simultaneously the site for Raju’s moral transgression and his emancipating individuation, as his first entry into the “nyI duiny;” of Maya and the Seth’s cabaret-gambling den is provided when he delivers a new dress-suit to Maya in the Taj Mahal Hotel. The state again plays a role in grounding Raju’s narrative function, as it is under Maya’s threat of calling the police that Raju is forced to comply in accompanying her to a party.

The cabaret, with its bright lights, dancing girls and tuxedoed playboys, a brass band playing swing music; and the gambling den with its talk of money, its explicit comparison to Monte Carlo and foreignness, and metaphor of life as an endless game, is assigned as the evil or decadent pole of a moral relation. Its opposite number is the “footpath palace” to which Raju, before going to the Taj, had brought Vidya for a cup of tea and talk of marriage, children, and a future after gaining employment in the laundry. Following this meeting, the famous playback song Pyaar Hua is performed in the pouring rain with Raj Kapoor and Nargis embracing beneath an umbrella, in a tableau reminiscent of film noir. In contrast, the pairing of Maya and Rajkumar in the cabaret-gambling den is coloured with the cynicism of mutual self-interest, rather than a bond of emotion; additionally, Maya’s vamp-like cigarette holder, her scantly clad body and petulance is contrasted with Vidya’s saris, her modesty and quiet resilience.

As much as with notions of cultural identity and kinship, it is on notions of sexuality and its control that the ideal moral universe of the Hindi film is coded.20 It is clear on which side the nation stands, as in earlier scenes Vidya has been earlier portrayed as a school-teacher of poor children, a loyal daughter to her handicapped father, and in her home is seen a framed picture of Prime Minister Nehru. But this nationalist woman must also return to her home and remain there, suffering and impotent to change her fate, or “ikSmt” — when confronting Maya at the cabaret where Rajkumar has brought her, she flees to her home, while Maya remains at play in the world on her own terms.

The third and climactic stage of the film sets about a resolution of the moral transgression and a narrative closure which unifies the discourse. Returning to Vidya’s home to which she fled from the cabaret, Raju-as-Rajkumar, dressed in a tuxedo and drunkenly singing, confronts Vidya. He offers her all of the money from his gambling, and from his business contacts with the Seth. In a moving dialogue with Vidya, our hero bitterly comments on the political economy of the city, the new social relations and their vacuity. Taking out wads of rupee notes,

Rajkumar: yh de%oj;ntI huì Ky;÷ d*ltÚ EjjtÚ n;mÚ x*rtmere ilye a*r tuMh;re ilye Ak nyI ijNdgI

Vidya: tum bem;nI kI %Ic@Û me’ p@Ûkr !U˛!te rhoge r;j

Rajkumar: yh Em;nd;rI k; ¯pdex hmex; grIb a;dmI ko idy; j;t; hwidn me’ mhNnt kroÚ k;m kroÚ ifr Em;nd;rI kI ˘%IÕZukI %;kr &gv;n ko xukr kro

Vidya: Kitne badl gaye tum…

Rajkumar: &Ulj;ao vh r;jÚ &Ulj;ao merI j;n. jo q; vh q;. (singing drunkenly) mud mudke na dekho meri jaan…

In tears, Vidya holds firm that she cannot be bought by him, but all the same mourns the lost Raju, the clownish tramp whose innocent dreams led him astray. She regretfully sings a song asking “j;nev’;le mu@Ûke jr; de%ke j;n;”. Vidya’s loss of Raju’s financial help, it later is revealed, means her school for the poor has been closed and that she has returned to the pawnshop to sell her schoolbooks, her “izzat”.

The moral polarities of the footpaths and cabaret are invoked again, with sharp focus on encoding moral opposites in clothing, in styles of music (folkish, colourful and joyous/big-band, foreboding and noisy), and in emotion. Vidya and Raju-as-Rajkumar meet again for tea and reminisce about their old dreams, and she castigates him for his violation of morals. Later, Raju-as-Rajkumar quits a costume ball at the hotel to join the footpath residents in their street song, and to emotionally return to his adopted family and mother. Singing, they welcome him as Ram — a subtle invocation of the Gandhian utopia Ram Rajya — the one to whom they gave their heart and trust.

The disorder introduced in the ideal moral universe is resolved in the final scenes of the film described above, dealing with the Seth’s fraudulent Janata Ghar housing scheme and Raju’s heroic foiling of the villains’ attempts to make off with the peoples’ — here constituted as “jnt;” — money, which had been deposited with Raju in trust that he would build them pukkah houses. Signifying a rejection of the corrupt, evil social relations of the capitalist class of Seth and his cronies, the film ends on a utopian note, reposing faith in state bureaucracy and the new governmental technologies of state planning, identified with the heroic subject Raju and his moral negotiation of modernity on behalf of the nation.

Victorious over the forces of evil and all of the ideas and characteristics associated with that pole — non-kin relations, uncontrolled female sexuality, big business, a non-Indian lifestyle, manners and clothing — Raju returns to his tramp outfit and to Vidya in the final scenes of the film, and presumably to his former poverty. But his heart remains Indian, an overdetermined refusal of the corruption of metropolitan capital and its immoral relation to his national community21, and an utopian statement on the promise of republican socialism and the project of passive revolution. The forces of production can be brought under control, it is implied, as when Seth comments on Rajkumar’s genius, and his smart response that the Seth’s genius works through him.

Interestingly, Raju must stage his own death at the hands of the Seth to bring the subaltern crowds into the final scene, and during the fracas, the police arrive in time to corroborate the evidence of fraud and murder by the Seth. Raju’s miraculous return to life and to his community is staged outside of the relations of the Seth’s civil society — which, following Marx, we could here call bourgeois society22.

However, his renegotiation of the disordered moral universe of the film and nation can only be brought to closure through his semivillainous participation, and faked death, in it — his moral transgression and negotiation of the poles to redefine the moral and social order.23 However Seth’s threats to Raju, in the final confrontation over the money, seem more realistic — “ab tum Es cKkr se nhIæ inkl skte” and “sb b;hr j;ne ke drv;je bNd ho cuke hwæ”. Capitalism, brought to the community through corrupting and sinister foreign agency, is here to stay. The overdetermined refusal of this contradiction, however, accords with the moralising rules of film melodrama, and a gesture of nationalist progressivism provides narrative closure.

We now can see the pregnant contradictions of the nationalist discourse on civil society and capital. The state is identified in its narrative authority with the subaltern hero — whose narrative function is to negotiate the modern through the moral-normative framework of the Hindi film — by authorising Raju’s heroism with the intervention of its functionaries at various instances in the film.24 However, the moral norms of this same nationalist community are only fulfilled in an ideal utopian universe which achieves both narrative closure and discursive resolution.

White has shown that in narrativising discourses like nationalism, the narrative fullness of a story is only achieved by the invocation of a moral standard which lends to any discourse its normative coherence and integrity.25 But while White tends to identify all authority with the state and its ability to foreground the narrativity proper to modern subjective consciousness, nationalist discourse is more complex in its distribution of narrative rights. While the state appears in a few instances, the negotiations of the plot are undertaken mostly by the subaltern hero, the representative of the national community, grounded in the state. Thus the gesellschaften of the modern state is only the ground of possibility of Raju’s narrative, it is; he must draw his moral authority from the gemeinschaften of the footpath dwellers, the unhoused subalterns who are constituted as an object of state developmental policy as “janata” (the people).

The state will, according to Raju in his final proclamation to the people in a direct address to the camera, redistribute the seized money and invest it in public welfare. Society is here split into two incommensurable domains: the evil domain liberties and fulfilment of interests in civil society, with its deceptive language of rights; and the good, moral domain of governmentality in subaltern “political society”, which the state addresses in a language of policy.26

The objectivity of narrative, concretised in the subjectivity of discourse, “redistribute[s] the force of a meaning that was immanent in all of the events from the beginning.”27 Narrative authority is politically grounded in the state, which presuppose the subjective centering of the hero as an active agent of the modern, but is only morally legitimised by the community. Identifying Raju’s negotiation of the moral polarities of the film with the nation’s negotiation of modernity is central to the normalising mission of the developmental state, the disciplining of its subject-citizens, and its overdetermined refusal of the irresistible corruption of capital and the social relations of its civil society.

1 This essay — a very tentative first draft — has profited from conversations with Charu Gupta, Shumona Goel, Sudipta Kaviraj and Tarun Bhartiya.

2 Shri 420, director and producer Raj Kapoor, screenplay K.A. Abbas and V.P Sathe, lyrics Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri, music Shankar and Jaikishen, RK Films, 1955

3 M. Madhava Prasad, “The State in/of Cinema” in Partha Chatterjee, ed. Wages of Freedom, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1998, p.128

4 Kapoor and Abbas, Shri 420 and Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, Raj Kapoor’s Films: Harmony of Discourses, Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1988, pp.50–56

5 While Indian nationalism is itself a complex unity of several ideologically distinctive traditions. I use nationalism, nationalist ideology, nationalist discourse, here to signify the Gandhian-Nehruvian vision of the nineteen-forties and fifties Hindi cinema. Gandhian in the sense that Nehruvian nationalism had assimilated the “Gandhian critique of civil society” to the Nehruvian “moment of arrival” in the nationalist state and its project of passive revolution of capital. Cf. Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse?, London: Zed Books, 1986.

6 While I have not ventured commenting on IPTA and the socialist influences of Abbas and Sathe, as well as the refuge that the Bombay cinema provided to the radical left-wing intellectuals of the time, I hope to do so in the second draft of this essay.

7 Prasad, p.123–4. The question of how an ideological state apparatus can be designated a specific agency of the state, when in our example of cinema, ideology seems a matter of private consumption of cultural products, ignores that the very public-private distinction is founded in the legal terms of bourgeois statecraft. Thus while the state may not play a direct role in the production of ideology, the cinematic apparatus presupposes the state as the political ground of its cultural practice, and in the case of Shri 420, the film faithfully reproduces its relations of production (and of domination). Thus we must heed not whether a cultural or political institution is strictly “public” or “private” in the sense of their economic or other relationship with the state, but how they function. Cf. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” in Slavok Zizek, ed. Mapping Ideology, London: Verso, 1994, p.111

8 Prasad, p.124

9 Prasad, pp.139–141

10 Sudipta Kaviraj, “The Culture of Representative Democracy” in Wages of Freedom, p.155

11 Unlike Amitabh Bacchan, the blue-eyed Raj Kapoor in his Chaplinesque tramp character is never quite believable as the Common Man we are asked to see him as, and K.A. Abbas, despite his radicalism, was not an organic intellectual of the subaltern classes. However, I take it that mass audiences still identify with Raj Kapoor’s hero, though he less represents a lower-class labourer or peasant migrant to the city than a fallen middle-class trying to ward off poverty. The sense in which I use the term “subaltern” throughout this essay is as a means of showing this identification.

12 Kaviraj, “The Imaginary Institution of India” in Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey, eds., Subaltern Studies VII, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1992, p.33

13 Kaviraj, “The Culture of Representative Democracy”, p.150

14 Commenting on Emile Benveniste, Hayden White has written about narrativity and discourse that “the ‘subjectivity’ of the discourse is given by the presence, explicit or implicit, of an ‘ego’ who can be defined ‘only as the person who maintains the discourse.’ By contrast the ‘objectivity of the narrative is defined by the absence of all reference to the narrator.’ In the narrativizing discourse, then, we can say, with Benveniste, that ‘truly there is no longer a “narrator.” The events are chronologically recorded as they appear on the horizon of the story. No one speaks. The events seem to tell themselves.’” White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, in Content of the Form, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, p.3

15 White, p.13

16 White, p.14

17 Kaviraj, “The Imaginary Institution of India”, p.21

18 Rosie Thomas, “Melodrama and the Negotiation of Morality in Mainstream Hindi Film” in Carol Breckridge, ed. Consuming Modernity, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1996, p.159

19 Thomas, pp.159–162

20 Thomas, pp.165–169. The encoding of female sexuality in the ideal moral universe and patriarchal norms of nationalist discourse provides an interesting view on the recent protests in Bombay and Delhi of the recent film Fire, which depicts a lesbian relationship flowering between sisters-in-law in a joint family. The protests by the Shiv Sena about the film’s alleged corruption or immorality was phrased as an appeal to the community’s moral-cultural norms, with lesbianism decried as a “foreign” lifestyle, and the relationship as a violation of terms of kinship. Most of the opposition to the protests has appealed to the liberal framework of artistic freedom of expression and to notions of civil society and liberal constitutionalism. That the state has hardly responded to these noble sentiments tells us something about liberalism in India and the political nature of the screen space.

21 Cf. Partha Chatterjee, “Community in the East” in Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai: Sameeksha Trust, 6 February 1998, pp.277–282

22 Sudipta Kaviraj, “Civil Society in India?”, unpublished paper

23 Thomas, p.171

24 While the final scene is the most dramatic with regard to the appearance of the police, the ubiquitous constable plays an interesting role in policing the boundaries of marital conjugality between Raju and Vidya in the first stage of the film.

25 White, pp.19–24

26 Chatterjee, “The Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State”, in Wages of Freedom, pp.1–20; and “Modernity and Democracy in Contemporary India”, Annual Lecture to the School of Oriental & African Studies Centre of South Asian Studies, 5 November 1998

27 White, p.20

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