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Melodramic, escapist? 'Awaara' Raj Kapoor's most creative movie with socialist theme

By Harsh Thakor* 
On December 13 we commemorated the 70th anniversary of epic film 'Awaara’, a classic in it's own right. The next day we celebrated Raj Kapoor’s 97th birthday. The movie pioneered the donning of the Charlie Chaplin image portrayed by Raj Kapoor as the tramp, who exhibited touches of genius. The moral of the film is that environment shapes a man's life and not heredity, which is projected in a most subtle and artistic form.
Rarely has a more creative film been produced portraying socialist ideas. The scene dissection was executed most articulately and cinematography excellent considering the era. The plot is most creatively knitted together of a tramp, his lover and her father, a judge who is the surrogate father of Raj. The final speech of Raju after being convicted shimmers the torch of protest against social injustice and the social system that breeds crime.
Fantasy and romance is most craftily blended with social reality or the hypocrisy of bourgeois society. It is significant that Mao Tse Tung called it his favourite film. The theme was a scathing attack indirectly on the caste system and the social evils of capitalism. The dialogues were most illustrative and buoyant, entertaining the masses to the very core.
The scenes were amongst the most griping or captivating in history of Bollywood.The climax ranks amongst the most ironic ever on the Bollywood screen while even the dialogues of Rita confronting her father defending Raju, and Raju telling his dog 'Tu bhi awaara, mein bhi awaara hoon', are soul searching. The conventional l bourgeois morals are dumped to the ground.
The story revolves around Raj (Raj Kapoor), who languishes in a slum with his mother after being estranged from his father (Prithviraj Kapoor), a wealthy judge, who ousts his wife from the house on suspicion of infidelity.
A young Raj (played by Shashi Kapoor) is thrown out of school (for having taken up the job of boot polish) and is separated from friend Rita. Forced to steal and cheat, Raj grows into a petty criminal, thanks to Jagga (KN Singh), a dacoit who has a score to settle with the judge.
Fate brings Raj into contact with Rita (Nargis) and his father. Circumstances lead Raj to kill Jagga and the case ends up in the court of his father where Rita defends him. Raj loses his mother (Leela Chitnis), rediscovers his father and the story concludes with a three-year sentence for him.
Still the movie was vitiated with powerful elements of melodrama, escapism, sentimentality and fantasy, or divorced from realism. The tramp 'Raju' finding himself into the home of his ex-lover belonging to an aristocratic society and the romantic sequences robbed the movie of true realism, of the Charlie Chaplin or Satyajit Ray films. Arguably it is a weakness that Raj Kapoor imitated the Charlie Chaplinesque form.
The movie in many ways was an advertisement for Nehruvian socialism even if it contained Marxist themes. It conveyed the idioms of the masses putting goose bumps on their seats, but did not simmer the spirit of rebellion.
It would be a most arduous task to ressurect a movie like 'Awaara' in the modern times, with alienation of the working class at helm in the digital age and divison on communal or religious lines. Even in this day and age slums exist in cities but the proletariat is more divided than ever at a workplace, with the advent of globalisation.
The movie in many ways was an advertisement for Nehruvian socialism even if it contained Marxist themes
It would have to adapt to a suitable form respecting the vast cultural metamporphosis in the masses, change in psychology or virtual anti-thesis of idealism today. Still in the spiritual sense the message of Awaara is as relevant today, with casteism perpetrating very root of society and Hindu revivalism patronising rule of corporates. Unlike Raj Kapoor producers in this day and age would have to confront the tyranny of Hindutva fascism.

Other notable movies of Raj Kapoor

'Shree 420' made in 1955 is more reflective of the capitalist social order and a more direct portrayal of social reality. Romance and humour is most artistically blended with social oppression .or evils. Raj Kapoor's role in the film was that of a underprivileged, but an educated orphan who comes to Bombay to turn his dreams into reality.
However it repeats the element of melodrama in 'Awaara' and diverges an audience from social reality. Raj Kapoor again exhibits genius as a tramp, but it is unrealistic for tramp to integrate with the cream or upper echelons of society, as projected. We must credit this movie for portraying theme of Socialism, but again it does not highlight the collective resistance of social forces.
The most realistic film and best acting performance of Raj Kapoor was in 'Jagte Raho'. Although not as entertaining as ‘Awaara’ or ‘Shri 420, it does utmost justice to social reality. He evades the tom foolery of his earlier superhits, infusing realism in acting in regions rarely traversed. A poor peasant (RajKapoor) from the village, who comes to the city in search of work, is looking for some water to quench his thirst.
He unwittingly enters an apartment building, whose residents takes him for a thief and chase him. He runs from one flat to the other trying to escape his predicament. Along the way, he witnesses many shady undertakings in the flats where he hides. Ironically, these crimes are being committed by the so-called “respectable” citizens of the city, who by day, lead a life totally in contrast to their nighttime deeds behind closed doors.
In 'Mera Naam Joker' made in 1970, he portrays the Joker who makes the world laugh but secretly brushes the tear from his eyes. Although certain parts touch the core of your soul or have artistic shades of a Michelangelo painting, the movie is awashed with sentimentality and plagued by the monotony of the joker symbol or self pity. The audiences were literally left bogged down. Sadly although amongst his most artistic portrayals, it was not a box office hit, and made Raj Kapoor broke.
Arguably he performed better as an actor in films he did not direct like 'Anari' or 'Jagte Raho' or even 'Teesri Kasam’. ‘Teesri Kasam’ gave an insight into the rural society of India and innocence of villagers. In ‘Anari’ he crystallised chemistry with Nutan that too morality to regions rarely transcended. The story of the film is about an honest man who works for a medicine manufacturer. He is an upstanding citizen who believes that justice will always be served and in the process, ends up losing a motherly figure.

Review of Raj Kapoor

Raj Kapoor literally gave a new dimension to Hindi cinema, by pioneering penetration of films to the masses. None in his day could smile with tears in his eyes or turn tragic scene into a comic one as abruptly. No director could blend humour, romance and pathos in such a subtle or creative manner.
Even if imitating the Charlie Chaplin style, his acting had powerful shades of diversity. In the erstwhile USSR no overseas actor was as admired as Raj Kapoor, whose films were a virtual household name. Russian people were enthralled with icing of romance and fantasy to the cake of socialist realism.
No doubt Raj Kapoor was genius in his own right as an actor and director but he was flawed in over infusing dose of melodrama, overacting, escapism or sentimentality, unlike Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt or to a certain extent Bimal Roy. In my view although many of his films had socialist overtones, they did not knit plots to convey social rebellion or sharpen class struggle. His acting lacked the realism of Balraj Sahni.
The movie 'Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai' which portrays theme of social reform of Vinoba Bhave, with dacoits relenting to villagers. It dilutes class struggle or radical spirit. It could have been Raj Kapoor’s weakness that he persisted with imitating Charlie Chaplin or portray his theme and not devise an original form.
Raj also failed to produce a movie reflecting the condition of the industrial proletariat like ‘Modern Times’ of Charlie Chaplin. In later years he paid scant respect to virtuosity in movies promoting sensuality like in ‘Ram Tera Ganga Meli’ or ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram.’
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*Freelance journalist based in Mumbai

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