We will be screening Raj Kapoor’s classic film Shree 420 on TUESDAY 9 MAY 2006 from about 5.45 to 8.45 p.m., with discussion to follow. Released in 1955 and set in Bombay, Shree 420 is one of the most influential products of the booming fifties Bombay film industry, and a canonical representation of urban life in the postcolonial city.
Shree 420 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; Shree 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 metropolis of Bombay, the privileged place for the production of the newly independent nation’s identity and the socialist vision. Hailed by cinema audiences throughout the new republic on its release in 1955, 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 Raju, newly arrived in the steamy concrete jungle of Bombay, following the noisy and irresistible path of the new expansive capitalism in search of distinction, prosperity, and a certain experience of modernity.