August 6, 2012 | 1 Comment | Betsy Woodman
I mentioned some of my favorite Indian film songs in Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes, and lately a couple of people have asked me where they can find Mera Joota Hai Japani (“My Shoes are Japanese.”) Youtube has the original song, plus any number of amateur versions rendered on harmonium, guitar, and for karaoke. Examples include Russian paratroopers belting it out at a slowed-down pace, school kids in California and Winnipeg bouncing around on stage, a woman solemnly singing it for her dad’s birthday, and a man in Singapore having a wonderful time in front of the microphone.
The classic bouncy song, which became a patriotic favorite in India, comes from the 1955 movie Shri 420–(“Mr. 420”). The number 420 refers to the section of the Indian penal code concerning fraud. Directed and produced by the great showman, Raj Kapoor, (who also starred in it), the film was a huge hit in India and as far abroad as the Soviet Union. Kapoor lived 1924 to 1988; his father was also in the movies, and two more generations of Kapoors now have made their mark on the industry.
The movie opens with country bumpkin Raj making his way to Bombay (now Mumbai.) Yes, the hero in several of Kapoor’s films is named Raj, reflecting some of the autobiographical concerns in his work. Recently graduated (“BA pass”), penniless but optimistic, Raj skips and dances along a rural highway. Chaplinesque in appearance, with his too-short trousers and his belongings in a bundle tied to a stick, he sings that though his shoes are Japanese, his trousers English, and his red hat is Russian, his heart is Hindustani–Indian.
The “picturization” of the song is a brilliant little story all in itself. Raj runs from a snake coiled on the road. Four smiling village women pass, with baskets on their heads. The landscape is open and the sky wide, giving a feeling of expansiveness and freedom. Along comes a camel caravan, and next we see Raj smiling and waving atop one of these supercilious-looking animals, sharing the seat with a bearded and turbaned elder. Next, there’s a glimpse of an elephant on parade (hinting at grandeur) and then Raj on elephant-back, swaying with the gait of the giant beast. Finally, in double exposure with the elephant, the city appears with its double-decker buses, taxis, and crowds. Raj is passing from the innocence of his previous existence into a complicated new world.
In Indian films, the singing is generally done by “playback singers,” with the screen actors lip-synching. In this case, the singer is the celebrated Mukesh (1923-1976), who often served as the voice of Raj Kapoor. Lyrics were by Shailendra (Shankardas Kesarilal, 1923-1966) and music by the composer duo of Shankar-Jaikishan, at that time the most famous film music team in the industry.
Bravo, Shoes! Fifty-seven years old and still going strong.