A Retrospective of Raj Kapoor

The Biography of Famous Personalities of India will tell you about the controversies, the dark sides of a person that you may have never heard of.

A Retrospective of Raj Kapoor

A Retrospective

I know there is one kind of cinema that exists in the world, that is good or bad cinema.

Raj Kapoor was one of the leading lights of Hindi cinema during its Golden Age from about 1940 through the 1960s. He won many awards, including nine Filmfare awards, two nominations for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and one of India’s highest honours, the Padma Bhushan. He was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contributions to Indian Cinema.

Raj Kapoor was no isolated genius. He came from and occupied an important place in the first family of Indian cinema, and in the world’s largest film industry. His father was the eminent Prithviraj Kapoor; his siblings Shashi Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor were major film stars; his children, Rishi Kapoor and Randhir Kapoor, and grandchildren Karishma Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor have been significant presences on the silver screen. Certainly he became an icon in his own right. But before that he was a member of the activist Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), formed in 1942, five years before Independence.

Theatrical instincts and deep ideological convictions developed in his collaboration with the IPTA would inform all his work in the cinema. Although he began in the movies as a humble clapper boy, Kapoor became the paradigmatic auteur. A major director and head of his own studio (RK Films), and a mega star, he enjoyed considerable artistic freedom. He oversaw every detail of the process of filmmaking, including music, for which he had a natural ability and talent. This talent remains unusual even among directors of Indian films, with a few exceptions such as the great Satyajit Ray.

Not only did Kapoor help define Indian cinema’s generic rules, but he also tested their limits in ways few directors could get away with. In Barsaot (1949), for example, there are two paired shots of different women sensually caressing their lovers’ feet, but in both cases the gestures signify in complex ways—they are neither merely erotic nor simply submissive. In other films Kapoor was even more provocative, presenting female actors in very revealing costume, and in one case nude. But the eroticism was never gratuitous.

His films were innovative and daring, situated at the crossroads between popular and parallel cinema. His technical achievements in staging, music, picturization and his interrogations of received social mores, even in an early film such as Awara (1951) remain cinematic touchstones. When he visited the Soviet Union in 1954 for the release of Awara there, Kapoor was lionized as Tavarish Bradyaga, or Comrade Vagabond. His films were popular in other parts of the world too, including the Middle East, Africa and China; Boris Yeltsin as well as Mao Tse Dong were reputed to have been able to hum melodies from Kapoor’s films.

One of the benefits of this retrospective is that it can allow us to see continuities as well as developments, obsessions but also contradictions in the director’s body of work. One could begin with Aag (1948), Kapoor’s directorial debut from the very first year after Indian Independence. The metaphor of Aag as desire’s fire reappears in Barsaat. Aag also introduced the persona of the underdog clown or tramp that would burgeon into perhaps Kapoor’s central motif, not to mention the actual term “awaara,” which would become the title and pivotal theme of the film Awara three years later.

In addition to such thematic vectors, continuity is also threaded through Kapoor’s films more subtly. For instance, a song from Awara reappears 28 years later as a melody played by the wedding band at Rupa’s wedding in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1979), creating a musical link between films with related clusters of themes. In Mera Naam Joker (1970), one of the women who loves the protagonist Raju reminds him of “an old song,” again from Awara.

But in this film Kapoor also goes a step further: in extraordinary fantasy sequences, he interpolates actual snippets from his own earlier films, particularly Shree 420 (1955), thus conjuring a visual intertextuality with Mera Naam Joker. Yet this intertextuality is not just adventitious. Although presented in Mera Naam Joker through “fantasy” interludes, these song and dance sequences comment on the diegesis, supplementing or embellishing it.
A Retrospective of Raj Kapoor 1
Indeed, in all Kapoor’s films, the fantasy sequences taken individually are units of considerable interest, some quite brilliant. Particularly impressive are the title song sequences “Awara Hoon” in Awara and “Mera Joota Hai Japani,” the famous ditty from Shree 420. Music, then, and the fantasy sequences more generally, are important connective threads in Kapoor’s oeuvre. Tracing these threads is not just a cinephiliac obsession. It connects communities of ordinary fans, many of whom avidly consume popular Hindi films and songs as movable feasts and related passions.

Often the song sequences are consumed as independent segments—as songs and video clips—by Hindi film fans, and as with most popular film soundtracks, the songs are played individually on the air or distributed legally and illegally. The credit for the musical and dance elements, however, must go less to the director and more to singers, lyricists, set designers and choreographers, including Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Asha Bhonsle, Manna Dey, Hasrat Jaipuri, the Russian Madame Simkie, and especially Shankar Jaikishen.

But the art in Kapoor’s artifice should not be given short shrift. Among his most unwavering commitments was to craft, to the art of cinema. And these commitments are also filaments of continuity throughout his career. Kapoor’s art direction can be astonishingly inventive. One of the most remarkable examples occurs in Satyam Shivam Sundaram for which he created an entire waterfall complete with rocks and pool on his own estate.

There is also a tremendous flood in the film, one of the most believable in Indian cinema—in part because there was a real and devastating deluge that almost submerged the set. Undeterred, Raj Kapoor insisted on incorporating the flood into the mise en scene, capitalizing on what today’s journalists might have called a “perfect storm” of events.

Raj Kapoor’s films often promote the social value of art. In Aag, painting and the theater are forms of art at the very core of the film, which Kapoor wants us to see as a work of art about art. Barsaot, similarly, foregrounds the power of music. The protagonist Pran plays a melody on his violin that irresistibly draws Reshma to him, at the risk of scandal, from her very traditional father’s home across the lake; this popular melody is also what reunites the lovers after a forced separation. Though lighting, costume, and special effects are important in Kapoor’s directorial repertoire, music as a form of art enjoys pride of place, with not just a narratological function but also an auratic status.

If Raj Kapoor can be called an artistic auteur, he is equally a didactic director. His cinema is a cinema of ideas. Kapoor’s early black and white work constitutes a homage to the Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica, and recalls Orson Welles and Frank Capra. Several of his films also evoke German expressionist cinema, but also gesture towards Fellini’s La Strada. One of his most enduring commitments was to a social pedagogy and cultural commentary encoded in the very “entertainment” his films consciously purveyed.
A Retrospective of Raj Kapoor 2
His films’ popularity and tendency to melodramatic excess should not occlude but rather highlight their trademark yoking of the two contradictory ambitions, entertainment and public education. This was a defining challenge not only for Kapoor’s films but also for the whole subcategory of the “Hindi social.” Thus Kapoor blends burlesque with a deep concern with issues of class and the legal system in Awara or in Boot Polish (1954). Other films turned on a denunciation of political corruption and gender hypocrisy, as in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) while also cramming the plot with song and dance “attractions.”

But his most effective vehicle for social commentary remained his carefully cultivated underdog persona as an Indian Charlie Chaplin—a counterpart of the Trickster figure or the Shakespearean Fool, an outsider within the culture who speaks the truth that might otherwise be unpalatable or difficult to express. This motif and figure was the durable linchpin of Kapoor’s oeuvre, beginning with the “vagabond” or “savage” of Awara but also finding successive incarnations in the mischievous and eponymous tramp of Shree 420 or the tragic clown of Mera Naam Joker.

Raj Kapoor was not satisfied just to comment on the mundane and sometimes unpleasant reality. He also wanted to offer a simulacrum of what is elusive in that reality: love, beauty, happiness, and pleasure. It is this tension that animates the brilliant dream sequence in Awara, but also the dramatic conflict of Satyam Shivam Sundaram introducing Zeenat Aman. This beautiful actress plays the role of an unfortunate woman, Rupa, whose face is horribly disfigured by a burn.

Her lover, played by Shashi Kapoor, is confronted with an almost Socratic, phenomenological conundrum: how can a woman be both blessed with a beautiful voice and cursed with such inauspicious deformity, evidently the stigmata of divine displeasure? Kapoor asks his viewers to re-examine their received ideas of beauty and fate. But the real psychological interest of this conceit emerges when, with a kind of perversity Hitchcock might have savored, the hero disavows the reality and insists on superimposing his fantasy on that reality, hallucinating a perfectly formed Rupa, whose name could be translated as “beautiful” but also as “form,” while rejecting the deformed but real Rupa, who is already his wife.

Given his commitment to social realism it is no surprise that Kapoor is obsessed with class. Thus in Barsaat Kapoor highlights class differences to dramatize the conflict between village and city, the local and the cosmopolitan, but also their cohabitation in Indian modernity.

Similarly in Awara class struggle is refracted as the main impediment to the love between the main characters; it is also an analog for the dialectical opposition between indigenous cultural identity and Western influences. Mera Naam Joker too turns on the problematic of class difference. Raju is the son of a circus clown who inherits his father’s profession. Playing the clown himself, Kapoor delivers a social critique about the lies society is founded on, and the lies that ordinary Indians must live to struggle against poverty and hunger. Raju admits lying to gain entry into circus employment, and his testimony is deeply moving to the Soviet visitors to the circus. He is found “guilty of being humane.” We might say that Kapoor’s broadest commitment is to being thus guilty of humanity.

Class difference is sometimes imbricated with ethnic or even racial difference, as in the blockbuster Bobby (1973), where a rich Hindu businessman’s son falls in love with a servant’s Goan Christian granddaughter. Similarly in Mera Naam Joker the eponymous Joker falls in love serially with three women from different class, ethnic or racial backgrounds, including a North Indian Christian and even a Russian woman.

Hilariously but meaningfully, Raju the Indian joker is mistaken for a Russian. Kapoor pointedly uses this device to communicate his message of transnational solidarity in a time when postcolonial India’s Nehruvian orientation was more to the Soviet Union than to the United States. This no doubt contributed to Kapoor’s being welcomed in the Soviet Union as “Comrade Vagabond.”

Another important cluster of topoi in Kapoor’s films emerges as his complex representations of masculinity and femininity in the new India. His images of the modern Indian male, and explorations of relationships between men, are often structurally critical: the rake and the sincere lover, the law abiding citizen versus the vagabond. Kapoor’s representation of women was if anything more complicated- sometimes approximating a proto feminist sensitivity, but at other moments verging on sexual objectification or prurience. Indeed one critic suggests that Kapoor manifested “the carnality of a schoolboy.”

He did seem to delight in tempting the censor with his highly sexualized representations of women in a range of films. Yet his broader ambition was to interrogate social institutions and arrangements such as marriage, patriarchy, the dysfunctional family, and the policing of sexuality. In Mera Naam Joker for instance, he introduces the character of Meena as a single woman who must masquerade as a boy to protect herself from a misogynist and patriarchal culture. But the most complicated female presence in Kapoor’s work and life was always Nargis, the actor with whom he had an intense on and an off screen relationship.