To inattentive spectators this 1956 film starring Raj Kapoor will probably seem a little naïve and perhaps shoddy, for it has enough imperfections to justify a less than perfect opinion about it. Some inconsistencies here, some lengthy bits there, a humour that sometimes annoys, and a rather surprising ending, halfway between reality and fantasy. I must say that I was, and still am, determined to explore films with and by Raj Kapoor, and this one (not directed by him, but by Amit and Sombhu Mitra) did strain my patience at first. Even if Raj Kapoor does a hell of a job.
The storyline is very simple: one night, Mohan, a villager, arrives in town in search of work, and he’s thirsty. Bending down to drink from a public fountain, he gets chased away by a policeman, and has to try elsewhere. This time the tap is behind the gate of a block of buildings. The policeman spots him again, and the peasant, terrorised, runs in instead of out. He’s seen, and mistaken for a thief. From then on, he goes from flat to flat, trying to escape the angry inmates who are bent on finding him, and what starts out as a respectable civilian’s duty turns into a crazed manhunt.
First the initiatives are scattered, but soon they institute a local surveillance squad, much like what happened in Maoist China (or any collectivist state in the mid-XXth century), and give themselves the right even to trespass into people’s homes in order to find the felon – one might as well say: the anti-revolutionary.
Meanwhile, Mohan, who is always powerless and speechless (more about this in a minute) is a witness to the lives of the people whose flats he visits as hiding-places, and he is our guide to these superficially “normal” people’s lives. For under this respectable surface are hidden not just what he himself is wrongly accused of, i.e. stealing, but also deceiving, brutalising, bullying, all kinds of morally condemnable and even criminal behaviour, that go on without no one knowing or caring. Here a drunken husband blackmails his own wife into unclean attitudes to satisfy his lust, there a man tries to rob his wife to get money with which to bet on horses, and of course the biggest crime of all, an underground joint busy printing counterfeit money is revealed, in which false doctors are ready to kill any involuntary spies. From his hideouts, Mohan does what he can to stop the evil, but it’s stronger than him. Humour and fooling doesn’t always win!
What’s interesting is that, as the story moves on, there is more and more focus and suspense. Mohan is finding it more and more difficult to hide, and even if funny episodes light up the search (Raj Kapoor hobbling along in the barrel… A distant forerunner of R2D2!), the general tone is one of anguish: he is trapped anyway; it’s just a matter of time before they get him. He can run, climb, hide: they know he’s in the building, and he’s overtaken by the sheer numbers. That’s frightening, by the way: the way a crowd can be brainstormed into believing they’re still doing the same morally good thing, as if they were one or two people. They don’t realise that when you are a crowd, the nature of the accusation changes. The supposedly guilty person’s defence shrinks in function of the numbers of his accusers. The more people are convinced of a man’s guilt, the harder it is for that man to defend himself, or even to believe he’s innocent, if he is innocent.
I’ve read that the film should be looked upon as an allegory, “where the darkness is the cloak of respectability under which a city supposedly sleeps but thrashes around in the throes of crime and evil.” (back of my Yashraj films DVD box) Yes, all this is true. But better than an allegory, I’d say you have to look at the movie as a filmed dream, or a nightmare, rather. Then it all makes sense. The lengthy and naïve passages are the exasperating moments of childish powerlessness which dreamers experience; Mohan’s speechlessness and lack of understanding; his constant panicky attitudes are the typical dreamer’s quandary. Shut up in a story which he cannot modify, he tries to escape, only to fall into another trap. Sometimes there is a lull, and then a new twist projects him deeper into the nightmare. Everybody looks the same, are dressed the same, the corridors of this huge block of flats are all the same, as are the doors, windows, staircases. The maze of which he a prisoner is in his head, and all he can do is wrench his hands to beg somebody, anybody, to stop the infernal machine. The film’s title “Jagte raho”, which means “Stay awake” is clearly a call not only to the morally asleep who have forgotten the clear light of virtue, but also to us spectators who should be jolted into realising that Mohan’s nightmare is happening because of our sleep. Mohan is our conscience, struggling from the layers of our Unconscious to emerge in the daylight and free us from our shackles. Our lives are often full of subtle lies, of delicate arrangements with our conscience, of elaborate constructions to hide to ourselves the hypocrisy of our double-standards! Who has never been tempted to trick his own conscience?
Mohan is speechless throughout the film, so when he does speak, it’s a shock. He does so when cornered on the roof, between the bloodthirsty crowd armed with the sticks of rightful punishment, their eyes injected with the desire of a victim, and the void, ten or so floors below. This recovered voice is a sign that here the dream ends, that the sleeper wakes up, and when he shouts his anguished cry to all of us, he is at that moment revealing to us the recesses of our own souls. It’s a sort of psychoanalytical process, healthily violent, which is taking place: the springing forth of speech shows that there has been a shock in the mind, and that a watershed has been passed. The dawn is that of exposure, of truth. What was hidden now comes to light: beneath the respectable surface of citizenship and worthiness, there is gaping hole, full of vermin; instead of the righteous solidarity against all evil, there is the tyrannical enrolment of mimesis and prejudice; and Jesus’ words resonate in the bright and empty morning: “do not judge, and ye shall be judged”; “why do you see the speck of dust in your fellow man’s eye, and never notice the plank that is in yours?” (I mention Jesus here because at one stage Mohan is stuck on a Cross-like pipe up in the air, and being lapidated from below, and one stone breaks a nearby window, revealing a crucifix).
The end is mysterious, but in its mystery, it has the simplicity of vision. The child who wipes the blood and dirt off his face, the swooning, the magic door that opens on to a garden (editor's clever work), the walk through the crowd of his former enemies, as if he was now invisible, and at the temple, the virgin fountain-bearer who recognises him, and quenches his thirst: the symbolical allegory is clear of course, and I won’t reduce its charm by interpreting it further. Let me just suggest that it is bathed in the gospel light which shone on Easter morning, and can still shine on the souls that wish never to be thirsty again, “for the water which I will give them will become a spring of water inside them, always welling up to give them eternal life” (John 4,14)
And it's Nargis (absent from the film otherwise), who is in charge of pouring that water of life on the vagabond.
An addition from July 4, 2012: you can go check a nice review by Anu: here.