Golden Era

Raj Kapoor & His Films – Part I

Raj Kapoor always remained on the straight and narrow path that he had started on almost fifty years ago. He has changed the locale, the environment, moved out of the sharp light and shade of the black and white films, and into the larger- than-life hues of the Technicolor screen of today. But the naive and sentimental lover of the forties, the idealist debunker, the heroic underdog, still remain the major underlying motifs in his work.

Entering the popular film industry as a clapper-boy in the Bombay Talkies studio, Raj Kapoor became a producer, director and actor for his first film, Aag, in 1948. Born in Peshawar on 14 December 1924, Ranbirraj Kapoor started his career on the stage with his illustrious father, Prithviraj Kapoor. Strikingly handsome and ambitious, Prithviraj Kapoor arrived in Bombay in 1929, joined the Indian Film Company, appeared in Alam Ara, the first Indian talkie, and toured the country staging Shakespeare’s plays. In 1944 he formed Prithvi Theaters, which still functions today under the supervision of another actor son, Shashi Kapoor. The sons and grandsons of Prithviraj have all been actors. Raj Kapoor himself, though he assisted director Kedar Sharma at Ranjit Studios in 1946, was already an established actor when he made Aag. His first film role was at the age of eleven, in Inquilab, directed by Debaki Basu. By 1948 he had already acted in eight more films.

Though Aag was not a dramatic success at the box-office, it yet fired the imagination of the post-war youth in India. Unusual and fantastic though the story might be, it commanded credibility merely through its intense portrayal of a highly romantic relationship set within the framework of a brooding melodrama ideal for the black and white medium. Raj Kapoor himself made a poignant comment on his first film:

I’ll never forget Aag because it was the story of youth consumed by the desire for a brighter and more intense life. And all those who flitted like shadows through my own life, giving something, taking something, were in that film.

Barsaat, his second film, was a phenomenal success. Young Nargis, with her haunting beauty, once again teamed up with Raj Kapoor in the main roles. The confrontation in Aag was between inner and outer beauty the beauty of the soul hidden under physical disfigurement. In Barsaat, moral decadence is in conflict with integrity; truth with falsehood; Pran, the romantic idealist, with Gopal, the ruthless rationalist. And weaving it all together are two separate tales of love and loyalty, one ending in death, the other in happiness. The music, a lively confluence of Western and Indian, enhanced the mood of quiet melancholy created so ably by the black and white camera of Jal Mistry.

Awara, which was a moderate success in the beginning when it was first screened in India, became an overnight favorite with audiences in the USSR and the Middle East. The Soviet distribution began in 1954, the same year that Satyajit Ray conquered the West with his Pather Panchali. While Ray’s film appealed to the aesthete, the discerning cinema viewer, Raj Kapoor’s Awara stormed its way into the hearts of the lay audience from the East. Raj Kapoor and Nargis became popular pin-ups in the bazaars of the Arab world, while the Soviets, who were said to have made a massive distribution of Awara, dubbed into a number of languages, even flew prints out to two Soviet expeditions near the North Pole. The songs from the film, translated into different languages, were sung in the streets of the many countries where the film was shown.

Journey continues … in Part II


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