Indians come together over one thing: movies. It seems sensible that a country of over a billion people, divided by religion and language, can unify under the neutral banner of entertainment. If a communal riot breaks out over say, a pig let loose in a mosque or a statue of Shiva is desecrated, people who were living and working side by side for years as friends suddenly are pitted against one another and caught amidst the animosity. Riots are commonplace occurrences in Indis - a vicious reminder of colonial partitions. But the film industry is the only secular medium in India that brings people of warring factions together in a temporary lapse of peace. It does what politics is supposed to do. It’s not unusual to find an Indian movie with a Muslim star playing the holiest of Hindi gods, Ram. Oddly enough, no one seems to mind. They’re just happy to escape the heat for a few hours in a dark cinema hall and to watch the hypnotic scenery and song sequences unfold onscreen.
The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.
Week 1: Shree 420 (“The Gentleman Cheat, Mr. 420”)
1955, B&W, Hindi.
Dir: Raj Kapoor
Director-star Raj Kapoor’s greatest work is the first modern movie of Indian commercial cinema. “Bollywood,” the transposition of successful Hollywood characters and plots onto Indian culture, as a concept and as a way of filmmaking, begins here. Raj Kapoor, unarguably India’s most consummate star (writer, director, producer, matinee-idol), uses Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) as a springboard for his jaunty parable of urban corruption. Kapoor casts himself as the rakish title character (“Shree” is the Hindu honorific prefix for “sir,” while 420 refers to the penal code for fraud, and is Hindi slang for “crook”), who blithely abandons the restrictive mores and traditions of the village for the glitter and promise of the big city of all cities, Bombay. Shree 420 epitomizes the optimism of Industrial, post-Independence India, poised for international trade and profit—the catchiest song in the film, “Mera joota hai japani...mera dil hai hindustani (My shoes are Japanese...but my heart is Indian)” is played so often that it has become India’s answer to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Part Sullivan’s Travels, part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Shree 420 is both a glorious paean and a scathing indictment of Bombay, its skyscrapers smacked alongside its slums, its modernity, its backwardness, its wealth, and its sleaze.