Towner Cinema Screen Classics – Jagte Raho

Posted on 17/07/2020


Michael Lawrence – Screen Classics

Head of Film Studies, Media, Film & Music dept., University of Sussex

For the July edition of the Towner Cinema newsletter, we asked Dr. Michael Lawrence, head of Film Studies at the University of Sussex to select and introduce a Screen Classics title for us. 

Michael chose the 1956 film Jagte Raho, directed by Amit Mitra & Sombhu Mitra.  Available to stream as part of MUBI’s Spotlight on India series.

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Jagte Raho

Stay Awake, Amit Mitra & Sombhu Mitra (1956)

Still from Jagte Raho (dir. Amit Mitra & Sombhu Mitra)

Following India’s independence, filmmakers sought to use popular formats to examine social problems. Studios in Bombay produced films that combined crowd-pleasing elements such as romance, comedy and songs with concern for the injustices of contemporary life. These “socials” were aimed at ordinary Indian people, but found international audiences. 

Jagte Raho is my personal favourite of the “socials” produced during this period. It stars Raj Kapoor, arguably the most popular Indian actor-director of the 1950s. Kapoor switched his glamorous and romantic screen image to one modelled on Charles Chaplin’s little tramp, an innocent everyman with whom Indian audiences might identify, in whose trials they might recognise their own. 

For those unfamiliar with popular Hindi cinema, imagine a cross between The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (dir. Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005) and The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, US, 1960). Like Lazarescu, Jagte Raho plays out over one long night, and combines realism with dark humour to criticise social inequalities. And like The Bellboy, the film takes place in a single location, and features a near-silent protagonist in a series of zany episodes that pay homage to Hollywood’s iconic early comedy. 

While Kapoor drew inspiration from Hollywood, his key collaborators on the film were from the Indian avant-garde. The director Sombhu Mitra, the composer Salil Choudhury, and, most importantly, the film’s writer, K. A. Abbas, were all associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Abbas was a pioneer of socialist realism in Indian cinema, and his films were among the first to find audiences around the world (particularly in China, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia). Neechar Nagar (Lowly City, dir. Chetan Anand, 1946), written by Abbas, was the first (and is still the only) Indian film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His first collaboration with Kapoor, Awaara (Vagabond, dir. Raj Kapoor, 1951), with which Kapoor launched his Chaplin-inspired hero, was itself nominated for that prize. 

In Jagte Raho Kapoor’s naïve tramp, Raju, newly arrived in the city, wanders into a large apartment building, desperately looking to quench his thirst. Before he can find a drink, he is mistaken for a thief by some suspicious residents, and before very long an angry mob, brandishing sticks and tennis racquets, is chasing after the increasingly perplexed Raju. Seeking refuge in various apartments, Raju discovers that everyone living there seems involved in shady business of one kind or another, and the film becomes a searing critique of bourgeois hypocrisy. The ending of the film, when Raju speaks for the very first time, is notably pessimistic for a film that features so much slapstick humour, and offers a searing indictment of social exclusion, in stark contrast to the optimistic resolutions with which “socials” more often concluded.