Tuesday 5 August 2008

Jagte Raho (1956)

The alienating demon apartment block, standing in for Dante's rings of hell.

We were pumped to see Jagte Raho (Stay Awake). First, after hearing the song, Jago Mohan Pyare, our weak little dil filled up with great red excitement and our hair stood up on end. Check! Second, it was written and directed by Sombhu Mitra, a "legendary Bengali actor-director". Bengali cinema! Finally, we get to see what all the fuss is about. Indeed we were predisposed to approve of anything that came from the land of Devdas, Satyajit Ray, and Amartya Sen, a region in India renowned for its intelligentsia. Check! Third, it promised to be one of those wonderfully stark, arthouse Raj Kapoor films. Triple check!

Jagte Raho takes place over one long, surreal night in a city apartment block. A thirsty villager (Raj Kapoor) arrives in search of some water. When he worms his way through the apartment gate to drink from a pipe, he is quickly spotted and accused of being a thief. As the apartment comes alive, demon-like, the villager goes from flat to flat in search of a safe hiding spot. And in every home, he's confronted with corruption and moral bankruptcy. A group of angry young men, headed by a wannabe tough guy (a very young Iftikhar!), organize relentless search parties. An alcoholic (Motilal) insists that his wife sing and dance in the manner of loose Western types. A corrupt Hindu pandit (???) charges commission for false predictions on the upcoming horse races.

Director Mitra uses a lot of widely framed shots, where the characters are dwarfed by looming buildings and deserted city streets.

Raj Kapoor disguises himself as a Sikh, while the thuggish Iftikhar freaks him out.

Eventually, our poor, hapless hero gets trapped in this web of sin when he gets mixed up with an illegal money-printing business in the basement. Now, some scary money-printing thugs are going to kill him if Iftikhar's mob doesn't, and all he wanted was a glass of water!

Much in the manner of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, this film is a satirical look at the dark side of humanity, using one interminable, weird night as the allegorical setting. By day, the apartment block is full of respectable people going about their respectable, middle class lives. By night, the apartment becomes a living inferno, complete with Dante's rings of increasing evilness. Neighbors have petty feuds. Daughters disobey their fathers and have private affairs with cowardly men. Husbands attempt to pawn their wives' jewelry. It's a violent baptism by fire for our naive protagonist to see how flawed and hypocritical these rich city people are. In one sequence, when he's reached the end of his tether and has been literally cornered by the mob, he lashes out, screaming and voice breaking, "You're literate people, big people! You taught a peasant like me that you must rob to be rich!"

Our favorite scene, for Raj's acting. Here, he's confronted with loads and loads of money.

Motilal, hamming it up. He's a good sharaabi, but he's not the best; that title belongs to our beloved Shashi!

The pervasive cynicism is occasionally lightened by tragicomic details - no character is spotless, but they are human, and their human frailty is treated with a sort of weary sympathy cum despair. Raj Kapoor is surprisingly sweet as the child-like villager, scared witless and head spinning. And while he's technically the protagonist, he acquiesces the spotlight constantly, acting more like a peripheral Greek chorus to the drama of the petit bourgeoise around him. It's notable that he hardly says a word in the film - mostly emitting terrified squeaks and sqawks and reacting rather than acting. The only scene where he says anything of substance is his moment in the corner, when he declares he too will be a thief, if that's what the stupid world wants him to be. But, no! Don't give up, Raj!

A constant theme of the film is sleeping versus waking. In the final scene of the film, when the woman at the temple (Nargis, in a gorgeous cameo) beckons for the flowers and Krishna to wake up, we see that all the evils fade away in the dawn light. Just like to be a buddha means to be "awakened" (from the Sanskrit root, budh, to know, to understand), the film draws parallels between the evils committed when the mind/conscience is "asleep" and the importance instead of remaining "awake", that is, mindful. Just as, in the opening scene, night watchmen cry out to each other, "Jagte raho!" (Stay awake!) So the film cries out to the audience - wake up! Whether this be to your social reality, political injustices, or personal demons.

This rather broad moral theme is painted on the canvas of post-Partition India. Several times in the film we see characters committing evil deeds in front of portraits of national heroes. In the end, when dawn finally breaks and the light hits our hero's eyes, these portraits reappear in all their bombastic glory. It is, depending on how sentimental you are, either powerfully moving or somewhat undermining of the film's earlier nihilistic despair. Prof. Lutgendorf, as usual, sums it up perfectly:
"The coexistence of patriotic schmaltz with trenchant social critique is of course characteristic of Kapoor's films, as is the suggestion, in the apotheosis-like finale, that the vision of a buxom goddess in a blouseless sari (played by Nargis, naturally), accompanied by a soaring hymn to Krishna, (Jaago Mohan pyaare, "Wake, O beloved Enchanter") might suffice to lift this dark Dystopia into a bright New Day. The awakened viewer gets to choose between lingering skepticism, and surrender to enchantment—or go away savoring both."
- philip's fil-ums: Jagte Raho

This tension between "skepticism" and "enchantment" is perhaps the film's golden touch: the extreme highs and lows of humanity are on display, from mindless mob violence to gentle compassion.

Raj Kapoor is very effective in his Chaplinesque tramp persona. We've never liked this character, and yet here - partly because he seems to naturalistic and, well, terrified, and partly because he allows himself to remain largely peripheral - we thought he was very effective. Other reviews have noted Motilal's performance as the drunkard, and he is indeed very touching, infusing his character with that sort of tragic, debauched Sufi-esque epistemological doubt. Life is a dream, he sings continuously. People make decisions based on what their heart says, but when they "wake" up, they're not sure whether they did the right thing or not.


ajnabi said...

What's weird to me is that even though I can't stand Charlie Chaplin I really can take Raj Kapoor's tramp persona and enjoy it. This movie looks surreal and disturbing; I'm not sure if I can bear all the dystopia. Still, excellent review.

Anonymous said...

I would watch this for all the other people in it. Sounds interesting! and the cinematography looks fantastic.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I do like that "life is a dream song." and it does seem a worty movies, I think with ur strong review, I am willing to try Raj Kapoor again- thanks!

Anonymous said...

I like the idea that this film takes place over one creepy night...also, I enjoyed Raj's tramp persona in Shree 420, but think it would just be silly if it kept popping up everywhere without any variation, which it sounds like this movie has(I've also seen Awara, which I found his Charlie Chaplin quite different than the portrayal in the later Shree, despite the song about him being a tramp).

In addition, I want to step outside of the box of commercial Bollywood and branch out into arthouse films--Also want to see the Nargis' "beautiful cameo". I love her!

Anonymous said...

"It's notable that he [Raj Kapoor] hardly says a word in the film" So, if I watch my eardrums are unlikely to be assaulted by his somewhat nasal whining? For that and the fact that he seems to be wearing a wig and get-up that completely hides his famous persona, I just might get round to trying this one.

Anonymous said...

Sigh, I do love those black and white vaguely socialist Hindi movies. Phir Subah Hogi is another fave although, damn it's a downer.

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Oh I'm so tickled by Bollyviewer's comment- lols- am completely in agreement .