As the night darkens, the glittering lights on Esplanade and Chowringhee Road, the business and cultural heart of Calcutta (now Kolkata), dims and the cabaret emanating from the night clubs of Park Street gives way to the ubiquitous cry of night watchmen: “Jagte raho! (Stay awake!).” The streets, once brimming with cars and their bright headlight, are soon empty. These become the exclusive constituency of the night guards, some of whom are sharp and vigilant, while others sleep, joining the cry from under their blankets. A lonely, lost village bum wanders these streets looking for water to quench his thirst.
When he wanders into an apartment complex — after seeing a dog lapping up water in a puddle under a leaking tap — the guard on duty takes him for a thief and raises an alarm. A vigilante army of jobless young men and boys living in the complex is assembled to search for the intruder. This soon turns into an increasingly absurd quest, with the vigilantes barging into everyone’s house in the middle of the night on the pretext of conducting searches, demanding money to buy snacks for themselves, and beating up anyone they suspect. The village bum, played by Raj Kapoor, hides in different apartments and witnesses the corrupt inner lives of the residents. For the world, most of them are respectable people, but in the depths of their homes, they are gamblers stealing their wives’ jewellery; drunkards; makers of spurious liquor; printers of counterfeit currency.
This is the premise of the nearly forgotten 1956 classic, Jagte Raho. The team behind the scenes comprised socially committed artistes critiquing all that had gone wrong with India’s socialist dream within the first decade of Independence. The film is directed by Sombhu Mitra, the doyen of the Bengali Group Theatre movement, and Amit Maitra. Mitra was a member of the Communist Party’s cultural wing, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), as was the music director, Salil Choudhury. The writer, K A Abbas, would run into trouble with censors a few years later for his documentary Char Shaher Ek Kahani (1968), depicting the stark contrast between the lives of the rich and poor in four major Indian cities. Lyricists Prem Dhawan and Shailendra had also been members of the IPTA. Here is a song from the film commenting on the dual standards of our society:
In Jagte Raho, the apartment complex represents the nation; its residents, the citizens. Another popular film which would use the symbolism of the house as a metaphor for the nation a few years later was the 1963 superhit Tere Ghar Ke Samne. In that film, the architect protagonist (played by Dev Anand) constructs two similar houses on plots facing each other in a tribute to Nehru’s socialist dream. In Jagte Raho, the different apartments might look similar from the outside, but are vastly different inside. When the gang of vigilante boys turn up at the house of currency counterfeiter Ram Malik (Nemo) for the first time, they are startled by the rich interiors.
One of them quips that Rambabu was in the US for a long time and must have learnt how to earn money there. Is it any surprise that the film was a huge hit in the Soviet Union? According to one set of reports, the film earned about $9.33 million in 1965, drawing 33.6 million Russian viewers in 1965. The film was also awarded the Crystal Globe Gran Prix at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in erstwhile Czechoslovakia — firmly behind the Iron Curtain — in 1957. The uniform apartment complex — and its inherent contradictions — would have seemed very familiar to the citizens of these socialist nations.
In her essay on the films of K A Abbas, “New Narratives for the New Age”, Rashmi Doraiswamy writes that Jagte Raho is unique in Hindi cinema, where the moment of outburst in the climax by the protagonist does not lead to any change in the society: “The passive and silent observer speaks and the crowd continues to hound him as before.” The common man, the village bumpkin, is not an agent of change as imagined in other contemporary narratives; he is merely an interrupter for the nefarious deeds in the building. One imagines that when he leaves in the end, the activities continue as before.
The inability of the individual to be an agent of change would have been a poignant conclusion then as it is now. What appealed more to this writer was the depiction of how the entire society could easily be transformed into a bloody-thirsty mob through an injection of panic. The mob has no patience for the process of law. They do not wish to wait for the police to arrive; instead they are eager to catch the thief themselves and lynch him. This seemed particularly relevant to our contemporary times when religious and caste minorities are increasingly targeted by lynch mobs at the slightest pretext, and very often with political patronage. The film ends at dawn, with the following bhajan (Nargis’s last appearance in a Raj Kapoor film):
This is, however, not a positive ending. On the contrary, it’s an appeal to wake up — an appeal that’s even more urgent in our currently dark and undeniably hateful times.