As a director, producer and star, Raj Kapoor (1924-88) became one of India’s leading filmmakers during the so-called “golden age” of Indian cinema in the first two decades following the nation’s independence in 1947. Kapoor is in some ways a lynchpin, a Janus figure, with one face looking back to the aspirations of the era of independence and the other toward the present state of star-driven Hindi cinema with its mass appeal and global audience.
As the son of a prominent stage actor, Kapoor was well positioned to take a leading role within Indian filmmaking, since much of the impetus for remaking the nation’s cinema came from the world of Indian theater. Prithviraj Kapoor was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a leftist organization formed in 1942 with the aim of using theater to bring greater political awareness to audiences. Many of its members were interested in film, including K.A. Abbas, a film critic who went on to write and direct for the cinema, and future filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. The cinematic trends that interested this group included Soviet silent cinema, especially Pudovkin, German expressionism, Italian neo-realism and some of the more populist elements of American cinema—specifically, Chaplin and Capra.
Out of this mix would be born India’s “parallel cinema,” those branches of filmmaking less concerned with commercial considerations and more interested either in politics or aesthetics, whether realist or avant-garde. Yet many of those influenced by the IPTA also went on to work in mainstream cinema, like Kapoor, whose work of the 1950s seeks to bring a concern about poverty and caste to the blend of music and melodrama so popular within the Hindi-language film industry. The best comparison is with Chaplin: a charismatic performer becomes a director and producer of films that seek to merge popular entertainment with sentimentality and populist politics.
Doing so made Kapoor hugely popular, as did his frequent on-screen pairing with Nargis, one of the biggest stars and most acclaimed actresses in Indian film history. At the height of his fame in the mid-1950s, following the releases of Awaara and Shree 420, Kapoor was a celebrity not just in India but throughout southern Asia, the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, Africa and the Soviet Union as well. At the same time, he helped to expand the stylistic vocabulary of Hindi cinema with his use of expressionist shadows and deep focus. In later years, working in color, he was among those who began importing increasingly lengthy, elaborate and spectacular song sequences into Hindi film.
Kapoor’s output slowed in the 1960s as he began work on what he envisioned as a trilogy of autobiographical films about the loves and heartbreaks of a popular entertainer. The result was one long film in three parts, Mera Naam Joker, released in 1970 to a decidedly mixed reception. After this debacle, Kapoor’s career recovered with his next film, Bobby, which made a star of his son Rishi, but he would go on to direct only three more films.
In his lifetime, Kapoor’s most popular work was released in the US only in abbreviated versions, and he never attained celebrity here. Now RK Films has made new, English-subtitled 35mm prints of seven of Kapoor’s most important films, presented by the Harvard Film Archive and the South Asian Initiative, with the help of the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Indian Film Academy. — David Pendleton
This program is presented in collaboration with the South Asia Initiative, Harvard University. Special thanks: Aliza Ma, Brad Deane – Toronto International Film Festival; Meena Hewett, Nora Maginn, Jennifer Bordo, Amy Reese – South Asia Initiative; Samir Dayal –Bentley University.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Nadira
India 1955, 35mm, b/w, 177 min. Hindi with English subtitles
If Kapoor tipped his hat to Chaplin with the title of Awaara (“The Tramp”), in his follow-up, he adopts the iconic bundle of clothing tied to a stick slung over the shoulder as he plays an innocent country boy who comes to Mumbai only to be tempted by the greed and corruption of the urban rich. Nargis appears once again as the virtuous love-object who also serves as the protagonist’s conscience, but here she has competition in the form of a femme fatale who transforms the hero into a swindler. (“Mr. 420” refers to section 420 in the Indian penal code, which covers confidence schemes.) The film’s score includes some of the most famous songs associated with Kapoor.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Prithviraj Kapoor
India 1951, 35mm, b/w, 193 min. Hindi with English subtitles
By the time he made Awaara, his third film as a director, Kapoor had built himself a studio and assembled a team of trusted colleagues, including cinematographers, screenwriters and composers. Their collaboration produced Kapoor’s most popular film, a runaway hit during its initial release across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. (It was also distributed, in an abbreviated version, in the US.) Now an enduring classic, it has even been dubbed the most popular film of all time. Its Dickensian plot concerns the estranged son of a judge who has been raised by a thief. His surrogate father trains him for a life of crime, but a reunion with a childhood sweetheart leads him to try to reform. In a move reminiscent of Capra, whom Kapoor counted as a major influence, the film’s political message of the struggle against the feudal and socioeconomic bonds is wedded to an Oedipal plot of struggles against and reconciliations with fathers. The film’s lavish sense of spectacle includes a nine-minute dream sequence that alone took three months to shoot.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Premnath
India 1948, 35mm, b/w, 138 min. Hindi with English subtitles
After an apprenticeship at the important studio Bombay Talkies, Kapoor took the remarkable step of beginning his own production company at the age of twenty-four. His first film as director and producer starred himself as a young man haunted by a lost childhood love and willing to risk disinheritance by becoming a stage actor instead of becoming a lawyer like his father. Aag finds Kapoor already employing the baroque shadows that would become the signature style of his black-and-white films as a director. This use of chiaroscuro reveals his apprenticeship at Bombay Talkies, whose leaders had received training at Germany’s fabled Ufa studio before the war.
Directed by Prakash Arora. With Baby Naaz, Rattan Kumar, David
India 1954, 35mm, b/w, 149 min. Hindi with English subtitles
Working with K.A. Abbas on the screenplay for Awaara may have strengthened Kapoor’s interest in social melodrama, because his subsequent project was this neo-realist-influenced film. The plot concerns two Mumbai orphans, sent to beg on the streets by their cruel aunt, who seek to better themselves by shining shoes. The debt to de Sica, one of Kapoor’s favorite filmmakers, is obvious; like de Sica, Kapoor here mixes a concern for the poor with a great deal of sentiment. Kapoor produced Boot Polish; his assistant Prakash Arora gets screen credit as director, but the film is now widely assumed to be largely Kapoor’s work.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Pran
India 1973, 35mm, color, 168 min. Hindi with English subtitles
Following the failure of his magnum opus Mera Naam Joker and seemingly in no mood to take chances, Kapoor directed this sentimental saga of young lovers thwarted by families embroiled in a feud over class status. The Oedipal conflict that resides in the filmmaker’s earlier work is updated to become a generation gap. However much Bobby may have been calculated to reflect the era’s fascination with youth culture, Kapoor seems to have included personal touches as well, drawing details from his life, especially his infatuation with Nargis. The film made stars of its two young leads: Dimples, who courted controversy by wearing a bikini in the film, and Rishi Kapoor, Raj’s son, who would become a major matinee idol in the 1970s.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Premnath
India 1949, 35mm, b/w, 171 min. Hindi with English subtitles
Kapoor first became a star playing the lead in Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), which helped guarantee the success of his second film as a director, Barsaat. He reteamed with Nargis who plays the lost love of the sensitive Kapoor protagonist, much as she did in Aag. In contrast to that fiery film, Barsaat employs frequent water imagery as a metaphor for the flows of desire that unite and separate the film’s two pairs of lovers, whose passion must overcome class differences and callow youth. Fire and water find their union in Barsaat’s sublime final images, as the smoke from a funeral pyre merges with rain clouds.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Rishi Kapoor
India 1970, 35mm, color, 184 min. Hindi with English subtitles
A pivotal film in Raj Kapoor’s career, Mera Naam Joker has also proved to be a divisive one, earning admirers and detractors in seemingly equal numbers. Originally conceived as three separate films, the sprawling Meera Nam Joker is a triptych following the life of a circus performer from adolescence to early adulthood to middle age, with each section focused on a different love of the performer’s life. The film itself can be seen as a reworking of Chaplin’s Limelight: both are passionately emotional films about clowns whose hearts break as they suffer to make audiences laugh. It also resembles such autobiographical cris de coeur as Fellini’s 8-1/2 and Chahine’s An Egyptian Story, all portraits of filmmakers in crisis. Kapoor worked on the film for six years and was said to be devastated by its failure at the box office. The five-hour film was cut to four hours for initial release and subsequently trimmed to three hours after its failure at the box office.
Directed by Sombhu Mitra, Amit Moitra. With Raj Kapoor, Pradeep Kumar, Sumitra Devi
India 1956, digital video, b/w, 138 min. Hindi with English subtitles
Something of a departure for Kapoor, Jagte Raho is a joint Bengali-Hindi film with expressionist touches meant to provide a comic yet critical survey of middle class life in India’s cities. Kapoor plays a familiar role: a poor wanderer from the country, he enters an apartment building in search of a drink of water. Taken as a thief by the inhabitants, he flees from flat to flat, encountering a cross-section of the building’s inhabitants. Kapoor produced this film for collaborators he had met through his father’s work in the theater and the leftist Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association. Co-director Sombhu Mitra was one of the giants of 20th-century Bengali theater, while scenarist K.A. Abbas – who also worked on Awaara – was a prominent writer, critic and director and a major founder of India’s “parallel” cinema.
Directed by Raj Kapoor. With Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, Kanhaiyalal
India 1978, digital video, color, 172 min. Hindi with English subtitles
Satyam Shivam Sundaram is a meditation on the nature of love, set against the backdrop of India’s 1970s rural-electrification campaign: a playboy engineer falls in love with a nubile young woman in the village where he’s working on a new dam, until he realizes that one side of her face is severely scarred. One of Kapoor’s most sexually explicit films, Satyam Shivam Sundaram remains something of a film maudit in India to this day—much seen but rarely taken seriously. Kapoor’s later films increasingly exploited the erotic potential of their love stories, but this material was typically repudiated by the end of each film in order to reassert a more traditional, chaste morality.