As I’d mentioned in my last post, I’m not much of a Raj Kapoor fan. I have seen most of his films, but I like very few of them. Jaagte Raho, a flop when it was first released (even though it won an award at Karlovy Vary) is one of the exceptions: an RK film that I found engrossing and worth the watch. Part of it probably is the fact that it features a veritable who’s who of 50’s Hindi cinema character actors. Part of it is due to Salil Choudhary’s superb music. And more than that, it’s because this is a well-scripted story, socially relevant in a tongue-in-cheek way.
The film starts off on a night in Calcutta, where nightwatchmen roam the streets periodically calling out to each other: “Jaagte raho!” (“Keep awake!”). One of these diligent men, in his perambulations, comes across a filthy and bearded man (Raj Kapoor), who’s poking at a hydrant, trying to get some water. It turns out that this man—I’ll call him the Villager, since he’s never given a name—has arrived in Calcutta from the village, has no place to go to, and is very thirsty.
The nightwatchman isn’t a sympathetic man, and shoos the Villager away. Disheartened, the Villager’s still plodding through the streets, when he encounters a Drunk (Motilal), singing Zindagi khwaab hai, waking up pavement-dwellers, and generally having a whale of a time. When the Drunk accidentally drops his wallet, the Villager returns it to him, and is the recipient of much gratitude—so much, in fact, that the Drunk insists the Villager come home with him.
It doesn’t happen, after all, since taxi driver shoos the Villager away and drives off with the Drunk. The Villager sets off again in search of water, and sees a dripping tap through the half-broken gate leading to an apartment block. He squeezes in through the gate, gets to the tap, and is about to finally quench his thirst when he’s spotted by a watchman, who raises the alarm, thinking the dim figure is a thief.
The Villager panics and runs—straight into the heart of the apartment block, where he ends up taking refuge in the kitchen of a small household. Kailash Babu (Rashid Khan), the householder, is sleeping the sleep of the just when the watchman’s cries awaken the neighbourhood. Within a matter of minutes, the hot-headed young men of the neighbourhood, headed by two enterprising fellows (Iftekhar and Krishan Dhawan) have armed themselves with clubs, tennis racquets and curtain rods, and are combing the area for the thief they believe has entered the apartment block.
In all the turmoil, the Villager manages to lie low (by hiding in an empty oil drum), though Kailash Babu’s daughter Sati (Smriti Biswas), who’s been canoodling with her lover (Pradeep Kumar) on the sly, nearly gets caught.
Once the thief-hunters have satisfied themselves that the thief isn’t hiding in Kailash Babu’s flat, they move off—and the Villager embarks on a night of high adventure, as fate sends him from the apartment of one wealthy and supposedly ‘respectable’ man to another. He meets, once again, the cheery Drunk, and discovers that the Drunk has a self-sacrificing, all-enduring wife (Sumitra Devi) at home: a woman who, in an attempt to keep her husband at home, consents to sing and dance for him, even though she finds the very idea repulsive (shades of Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, anyone?)
Then there is Shashank Babu (Pahadi Sanyal), whose best friend is his neighbour, a staunch Brahmin who is a dab hand at predicting which horses will win at the races…
Shashank Babu himself is perennially short of cash, so has to resort to stealing his wife’s jewellery off her while she’s sleeping. His wife, Meenu (Sulochana Chatterjee) has gotten so fed up by now that their home’s a veritable battleground.
And there is the wealthy philanthropist Ram Narayan Mullick (Nemo), who has offered a gold medal as prize to the man who catches the thief who’s got into the apartment block. Mullick is well-respected and much admired, a man who seemingly spends all his wealth on the welfare of the poor and needy. He has, for instance, made a small charitable hospital within the apartment block:
…which only a few insiders realise is the main conduit for Mullick to distribute the currency he forges.
A criminal philanthropist. A priest who gambles. A man who steals from his own wife. A daughter who carries on an affair under her father’s nose. A man who has no qualms about making his wife sing and dance for his pleasure. All of these, and more, join the hunt to find the so-called ‘thief’ they’re sure is hiding in the block of flats.
Jaagte Raho is really not so much a story, more a loosely knitted together set of vignettes, little episodes from the lives of people who sometimes have only the most passing of relationships with the others in the film. In a matter of one night, the camera follows the Villager as he looks for a little water with which to quench his thirst. The resultant story is socialist, sarcastic in its ridicule of the superficially ‘respectable’, and overall pretty entertaining. Recommended.
What I liked about this film:
Very much: Jaagte Raho is one of the few Raj Kapoor films that I really like. It’s well-scripted, taut and efficient, with almost no superfluous plot elements. The acting is by and large good (Daisy Irani, S N Bannerjee and Nargis are among the others who appear in the film). And, Salil Choudhary’s music is excellent. Zindagi khwaab hai is probably the best-known of the songs, but other favourites of mine include Jaago Mohan pyaare and Ainvei duniya deve duhaayi.
What I didn’t like:
Raj Kapoor as the Villager. Jaagte Raho, like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, is a tale shown from the point of view of a minor character. In The Hidden Fortress, two bumbling peasants, fleeing from a countryside ravaged by war, become unwitting witnesses to the saga of a princess and her general, as they try to escape with a valuable treasure in tow. In Jaagte Raho, too, a bumbling peasant—the grubby and nameless Villager who searches for water in the big, bad city—is the focal point, the man through whose eyes we get to see so many stories unfold. The Villager is, for me, a character both sympathetic and irritating. It’s easy to feel sorry for this man, who’s being labelled a thief for no fault of his own. On the other hand, there are moments when I felt like hitting him on the head. Firstly, when someone is that thirsty, he wouldn’t waste a single opportunity to drink some water. Which is exactly what this man does; he’s carrying a jug of water to splash on an unconscious woman’s face, but he never even takes a swallow from it. (Yes, it could be a way of showing how selfless he is; but how normal is that?) And when he sees running water, he gapes at it instead of drinking it. Please!
And then there’s the general demeanour of the Villager. He is, of course, nervous (even downright scared), resorting to lame disguises and subterfuge to escape notice. But, every now and then, he seems to get possessed by some wandering imp. Then, instead of trying to blend into the background, he indulges in pranks that blow his cover sky-high. I’d expect a timid creature like this to stick to the shadows instead of deliberately putting himself at risk of discovery.
Worst of all, Raj Kapoor’s acting in places is completely over the top. There’s one scene towards the end where the Villager fears that he’s finally going to be caught, and the minute-long ‘panorama of expressions’ that follows is theatrical in the extreme.
The protagonist in Jaagte Raho is, at first glance, a far cry from the hero of films like Anari, Awara, or Shree 420. These had Raj Kapoor in a more readily recognisable ‘lovable tramp’ role: educated young man, highly principled and good, tries to stay afloat against the combined forces of wealth and organised crime. In the process, Chaplin-like, the protagonist gets up to harmless tricks (some slapstick here) that help move the story forward. In Jaagte Raho, Raj Kapoor’s character is, on the surface, different: rural, illiterate, simple—but, like the others, singularly upright, honest, and not above the occasional prank to help him accomplish something.
If you are fond of Raj Kapoor and his trademark style, you’ll see glimpses of it here. If you don’t much care for it, I’d still recommend watching Jaagte Raho: it’s a good film, well-made and entertaining.