Back to Legends – Raj Kapoor
He turned the common man into an uncommon success. When Raj Kapoor slipped into those ankle length trousers, patched overcoat and bowler hat in his greatest classics, Awara and Shri 420, he imbued his creation, Raju, the tramp, with such lyrical passion that he tugged at the heartstrings of a nation.
India fell in love with the tramp precisely because the people could identify with him. Kapoor aptly located the quintessentially 50s quest for a national identity and his tramp became an allegory for a certain innocent state of mind of the post-independence Indian. Just as Kapoor’s Raju is shown to be alternately won once by the heroine Vidya (Nargis, the metaphor for knowledge) and the vamp Maya (Nadira, the metaphor for illusion) in Shri 420; and by Jagga (the force of evil) and Rita (the force of salvation) in Awara, every citizen of the new Indian republic too was torn between Nehruvian socialism and flashy capitalism. Under Kapoor’s direction, the common man’s world became a microcosm for Indian society. Raj Kapoor’s socio-political parables of human aspiration (as Kapoor sings in the prelude to the much vaunted `Ghar aaya mera pardesi’ dream sequence in Awara, `Mujhko yeh narak na chahiye mujhko chahiye bahar’) became emblematic of the small man dreaming big.
For his unique ability to commingle popular cinema with cinematic poetry and for attaining a synergy between his two selves as an actor and a director, Raj Kapoor is renowned as one of our brightest luminaries.
There was little to mark him for greatness. Born Ranbir Raj Kapoor, to the thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, he failed his matriculation examination and started work as general factotum on the sets of Dilip Kumar’s first film, Bombay Talkies’ Jwar Bhatta. He moved on to assist Kidar Sharma and was made to sweep the floors and act as a clapper boy. Once Sharma even slapped the young, preoccupied-with-his-looks Raj when he botched up a job. But it was Sharma who gave Raj his first break as a hero in Neelkamal (’47).
When the newly married Raj first peered from behind a camera it was to direct the dark, stark Aag (’48). Obviously inspired by German expressionist ideas, it challenged traditionally established conventions of sympathetic characters and straightforward narration. Stardom, however, came Raj’s way with Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz (’49). It was largely felt that Raj’s flamboyant performance as Nargis’ suspicious husband had cornered all the glory despite the presence of Dilip Kumar. Later in the year, with the release of his second directorial venture, the musical superhit Barsaat(’49), Raj successfully claimed his place in the Dilip-Dev-Raj trium(ph)virate.
With Awara (’51) and Shri 420 (’55), his fame touched new heights. In 1954, Awara was released in Russia as Brodigaya and achieved unprecedented success as two nations dueted to `Awara hoon’. Even China’s Mao Tse Tung named Awara his favourite film.
The unmatchable primeval passion that Raj-Nargis ignited in their romantic songs reflected their real life love story and their numbers like `Pyar hua ikrar hua hai’ remain famous to date. Raj’s songs are popular even today because of his tremendous ear for rhythm and his involvement in music sittings for all his films.
After Nargis’ exit from his life, Raj’s films were like a musical piece with an important instrument missing, but the character of the tramp remained his alter ego, through Anadi (’59), Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (’61) and so on, right upto Mera Naam Joker (’70). After this autobiographical, self-reflective and narcissistic tale of the clown whose red nose was derived not from paint but from weeping ended up as a stultifying pile of self-indulgences, Kapoor made a comeback as a director with Bobby (’73). He now reverted to the psychologically pertinent examination of human relationships that he had shown such a flair for in his 60s blockbuster Sangam (’64). However, his ambitious attempt to sublimate soul over body fell through in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (’78), where it was Zeenat’s body display that left the biggest impression.
Now the ‘legendary showman’ brouhaha whirled constantly around him but Raj continued to bring dramatic urgency to his films like Prem Rog (’82), based on the theme of widow remarriage. Next came Ram Teri Ganga Maili (’85), a paen to innocence under siege. Reverting to his nationalistic preoccupations, he postulated a female protagonist as a metaphor for the country, once pure but now sullied by the dirt of corruption and sin.
Before his demise, Kapoor had the satisfaction of seeing his swan song become a critically acclaimed blockbuster. But then Kapoor’s uniqueness lay in his being that rare creator (he was an actor secondarily), who had the ability to appeal to the head and the heart, to sense and sensibility. He was endowed with the talent to reach the most sacrosanct reaches of our being and make us recognise ourselves on screen.