Shree 420 is perhaps Raj Kapoor’s most famous film next to Awaara (1951). Going a step further with the character of the Chaplinesque tramp of Awaara, he effectively uses the character in a most enjoyable tale that charts the moral corruption of an innocent soul coming to the big bad city to make his fortune.
Like many of Raj Kapoor's films, Shree 420 focuses on the duality of issues - here it was the battle of innocence v/s corruption, rich v/s poor and traditional v/s modern. True to mainstream Hindi film stereotypes the city is populated by the cold blooded rich on one end and the warm-hearted poor like the fruit seller at the other. But what’s most interesting in the film really is the duality of the face of the Indian woman. Nargis plays Vidya the nourisher and pure, good Indian woman - a poor schoolteacher with a paralyzed father, while Nadira plays Maya the corrupt Westernized modern woman seducing Raj into a world where money is the beginning and end of all means. This conflict on the surface might just be a clash of the two facets of a woman - the home-loving girl next door versus a femme fatale but on a larger scale we see it is really a conflict of two ideologies that post-independent India faced following the years of its freedom - the traditional Indian and the so called modern western. The conflict has been there right since Independence as India strove to combine modernity with a strong National ethos in order to promote its own path of nation building. On one hand even as India successfully challenged colonial domination, she accepted the very intellectual premises of ‘modernity’ on which colonial domination was based. Modernity in nation building has focused on economic productivity and autonomy of the individual contradicting Indian Traditions which have a strong base in community, religion and honour.
Several of the comic sequences are homage to Chaplin not to mention least the climax of the film with a money bag being thrown around and the characters chasing it. But the film also captures several nuances of Bombay in these sequences like when Vidya slips on the banana peel and falls. All laugh at her including Raj and when he subsequently slips and falls on the peel, Vidya, though having just fallen and angered at been laughed at, too joins in laughing at his fall - a beautiful illustration of the harsh cruelty of the city.
Shree 420 reaffirms the Raj Kapoor-Nargis searing on-screen chemistry. After Awaara, she worked almost exclusively with him even turning down her mentor Mehboob's Aan (1952). The passion that each had for the other poured out on the screen as they romanced each other in several films - The song Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua with Nargis and Raj under the umbrella in heavy rain is subliminal romance at its very best.
Coming to the performances, Raj Kapoor effectively portrays the underdog at the mercy of the big bad world. Raj is a typical Raj Kapoor character of a naïve idealist, the world wants to destroy. (Jagte Raho (1956), Anari (1959), Teesri Kasam (1966), Mera Naam Joker (1970)) Nargis, as always, plays the virtuous heroine to perfection but the scene stealer of the film is undoubtedly Nadira. Then still a leading lady, the film cast her against type as the cigarette smoking vamp to such strong effect that thereafter she was only offered negative roles! She refused most of them still wanting to play the heroine only to find few offers forthcoming. The roles she refused were then offered to Shashikala making a star out of the latter making her lose out in the vamp department as well. But films like Shree 420 and Pocketmaar (1956) prove that there when Nadira was up to her scheming vamping antics, she had no equal! Lalita Pawar creates her most endearing role of the fruit seller on the streets of Bombay.
As in any Raj Kapoor film, the music is a highlight of the film. Each and very song from Mera Jootha Hai Japani to Dil ka Haal Sune Dilwala, from Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua to Mud Mud ke na Dekh, from Ramaiya Vastavaiya to Ichak Daana Bichak Daana is a masterpiece and represents one of Shankar-Jaikishen's best ever scores. The film is a particular triumph for Manna Dey since Mukesh, the regular voice of Kapoor, was busy with his acting assigenments and could only sing Mera Jootha Hai Japani, Ichak Daana Bichak Daana and Ramaiya Vastavaiya. Dey effortlessly takes over as the voice of Kapoor with Mud Mud ke na Dekh, Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua and Dil ka Haal Sune Dilwala. Special mention must also be made of the Mud Mud ke na Dekh song and its picturization - starting slowly and seductively before building up in pace and energy and by the end signifying Raj's total corruption. Incidentally it is said that Sadhana is one of the children in the Ichak Daana Song!
Apart of course from India, Shree 420 was a raging hit in Russia, Egypt, the Middle East, Israel and Iran. In fact, in Tehran Raj Kapoor was conferred with an honoury degree, which was most ironic since in real life he was a school dropout. In India, the film's strong influence can still be seen down the years in films like Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) and Bas Itna sa Khwab Hai (2001).