Series – Cinema Maestros and Iconic Films of India (2)
Stanislas Dembinski November-December 2016
How Raj Kapoor, the ‘Charlie Chaplin of India’, Changed Indian Cinema
With his Chaplinesque character of Raju, from the classic ‘Awaara’ (1951) to ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (1970), Raj Kapoor established a universal figure of a poor man confronted with adversities that most of the contemporary Indian movies seem to have forgotten. He changed Indian cinema for good, as a star, a director and a producer through his famous RK Films and RK Studios in Mumbai. He was also a popular figure worldwide, from Russia to China and from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.
Raj Kapoor was never a tramp or a poor man, even if he portrayed quite a few of them on screen with a crying authenticity and to an international acclaim. He was not from a poor family, like Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), his idol, but he shared with him many traits as an actor, a director-producer avid for independence and as a popular figure. He was born in 1924 in Peshawar, now in Pakistan, in the then British colonial India, in a famous Punjabi Hindu family of artists. His father, Prithviraj Kapoor, was a legendary figure of Indian theatre and cinema and the patriarch of the Kapoor cinema dynasty, still popular via the actual fourth generation of actors and stars, such as Ranbir Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor.
As for Chaplin, whose parents were music hall entertainers in London, acting was in Raj Kapoor’s blood. He started appearing in movies when he was 11 but his real breakthrough came in the late 1940s with films such as ‘Neel Kamal’ (1947) and ‘Aag’ (1948).
The latter also marked his directorial debut, at the age of only 24, a record of precocity at that time in an Indian cinema industry where one had to slowly climb up the ladder. The film was produced by his own RK Films production company, established the same year, in order to ensure his artistic freedom. Ironically, to keep his studios afloat, throughout his prolific career, Raj Kapoor would have to play many times in movies much less interesting than his own productions.
The iconic tramp
By the end of the 1940s, in the beginning of what is often called the ‘Golden Age of Indian cinema’ (till the end of the 1960s, according to most specialists), he was already a big national star, alongside Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. But, what really propelled Raj Kapoor to international stardom was ‘Awaara’ (The Tramp), in 1951. In this black and white classic that he also directed and produced through RK Films, Raj Kapoor created the character of Raju, the poor little tramp he would portray in many other movies like ‘Shree 420’ (1955), sometimes under a different name or using a slightly different variation.
Even ‘Mera Naam Joker’, in 1970, can be considered as a late chapter of the ‘Raju’ series. In this colourful tale, Raj Kapoor is inspired to a certain extent by his own experience and plays a famous circus clown whose duty to make people laugh proves to be a growingly difficult task. ‘Mera Naam Joker’ initially flopped but gained throughout the years a huge popularity, notably when it was re-released in a shorter version.
As far as ‘Awaara’ is concerned, it was an incredible hit from the start. It mixes perfectly all the ingredients of the melodrama: Raju’s quest to discover who his father is, his love for the rich and beautiful Rita (played by Nargis, a star who would be Kapoor’s partner in many films and in real life) and his desperate experience as a thief.
But there is much more to it: comedy, dance, songs, suspense… In ‘Awaara’, Kapoor creates a visual icon directly inspired by Chaplin’s own tramp, ‘Charlot’ as the French call him. “He made it almost shamelessly in the same way, like Chaplin’s walk and all that. That also led to his popularity. Most Indian movie goers were not aware that he was copying Chaplin. But he did a good copy and there is no problem with that. ‘‘He met Chaplin in Switzerland later and told him he was called the ‘Charlie Chaplin of India’,” explains Bhaichand Patel, film specialist and editor of the reference book Bollywood’s Top 20 superstars of Indian cinema.
‘Awaara’ is often considered as one of the most popular films of all times, since it enjoyed a long lasting success in so many countries and continents, from South Asia to East Asia and from Europe to the Middle East and Africa. It was even nominated for the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. It was particularly appreciated in the then communist countries that had a good relationship with India, considered almost as a ‘brother country’.
A ‘socialist movie’
“Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China welcomed ‘Awaara’. It is basically a socialist movie about the poor and the rich, about a poor boy in love with a rich girl. It touched a chord. The songs were amazing and hugely popular in Russia and China,” says Patel.
Especially, the ‘Awaara Hoon’ (I am a tramp) song became an international hit, translated in many languages, like English, Russian, Turkish and Mandarin. It was interpreted by the legendary singer, Mukesh, in a playful way, with his velvet voice and the light-hearted music was composed by the Indian duo, Shankar Jaikishan. The lyrics, written by Shailendra, echoed the harsh times experienced by many people in India in those days of post-Independence: “I am not settled. Yes, I am devastated. I sing songs of happiness, yet this chest is full of pain. But my carefree gaze laughs. World! Your arrows, or the fates, have destroyed me. I am a vagabond. I am a vagabond. Or I am a star of the sky, doing its circuits. I am a vagabond. I am a vagabond.”
The way Raj Kapoor sings and dances in the streets, with his old battered hat, his iconic rolled-up trousers – that became quite fashionable after the film’s release – remains irresistible. He surely has a Chaplin walk, with his legs slightly apart, and the same joyful and anarchist way of playing with passersby on the street, in order to steal a jewel or a wallet, and then escape and dance with some young ladies on a truck platform.
In few long sequence shots, one also has a cinematic and altogether realistic glimpse of urban India of that time. The influence of the then hugely popular Italian Neorealism cinema is also visible. ‘Awaara’ was shot as much as possible on location, like Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica movies that Raj Kapoor had watched in Mumbai. In less than three minutes only, the song ‘Awaara Hoon’, gives the audience the opportunity to immerse itself in a poor suburb. Nothing is missing in the lively street life: from women cooking to young naked street urchins playing around.
Raj Kapoor died in 1988 of complications related to asthma, at the age of 63. He had a huge influence on Indian cinema for decades but nowadays it seems that he has no equivalent in the movie industry. There might be stars like Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan but times have changed, poorer people are less shown in the films, which are now more about the middle class and the upper class. There is no Indian remake to ‘Awaara’ and maybe it is better this way. Raj Kapoor will eternally dance and sing: ‘I am a vagabond’.