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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.

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