AWARA (1951, d. Raj Kapoor)
Though the first Indian sound motion picture was released in 1931, it was not until the fifties that Hindi cinema truly hit its stride as it gradually developed the distinctive characteristics that make up what we now call Bollywood. One person largely responsible for creating this magic formula was actor/director/producer Raj Kapoor, dubbed the ultimate ’showman’ of Indian cinema. Kapoor belonged to one of the greatest family dynasties in Bollywood, with members of five generations ranging from his grandfather to granddaughters all having acted in the film industry. None were more respected or loved than Raj himself however; the influence of his work (particularly as a director) continues to be felt in Hindi movies even to this day.
This atmospheric and brooding social commentary was Raj Kapoor’s third as director and producer which was shot at his own production studio, R.K. Films. Though Kapoor would later enter a career-best acting performance in 1955’s Shree 420, I would consider this film his finest achievement as a filmmaker. Remarkable that he was aged just 27 at the time. Kapoor plays the part of Raju, a cheerful young Bombay slum-dweller who has taken to petty crime to feed himself and his ailing mother, Leela. Both were thrown out on to the streets by Leela’s husband, the misguided district judge Raghunath (performed by Raj Kapoor’s real-life father, Prithviraj), who wrongly believed his son to not be his own but that of a sworn enemy, the conniving bandit Jagga. While on a thieving caper, Raju meets up after many years with his childhood friend, the beautiful and wealthy budding lawyer Rita (Nargis). The two fall in love, but little do they both know that Rita’s guardian is none other than Raju’s estranged father himself. A violent encounter follows the discovery, which leads to a date in court for Raju and a difficult first case for Rita.
Awara is a true landmark in Hindi cinema. Though it is preceded by other important films such as 1949’s Andaz and Barsaat, it can still nonetheless be considered an unofficial starting point for Bollywood as we know it. Almost all the hallmarks are on display; from the romance hampered by a rich/poor divide, to the fantasy dream song sequence (making its debut here), to the testosterone-appeasing fist fights, to the infamous ‘item’ number picturised on a fair-skinned female performer barely related to the story. But while subsequent filmmakers - including today’s - might make little attempt at connecting these components cohesively, Raj Kapoor showed ‘em how it was done. Awara combines its various plotpoints admirably (some smoother editing is called for in parts), ensuring all play an important part in its subdued, critical tale of caste dogma and the inevitable grim outcomes. And while undoubtedly Indian in spirit, the film abounds with clear Western influences too. Kapoor’s vagabond characterisation bears obvious comparison to Chaplin’s tramp persona, while the moody and offbeat set staging evokes the work of Orson Welles.
Despite the often dark narrative, the movie is perhaps best loved and remembered for the radiant chemistry of the two leads, Nargis and Raj Kapoor himself. The pair’s love affairs (both on and off screen) are the stuff of Bollywood legend. Though Kapoor was a married man, it was no secret that he and Nargis were lovers - a blind eye was turned by all thanks to the magic both delivered in the numerous films they appeared opposite each other in. Such was the fondness Kapoor had for his leading lady, he would always ensure she received top billing above himself - a rare practice still. Awara sees Nargis at her most resplendent; sporting an infectious, gap-toothed grin and 1940s Hollywood good looks, her magnetic screen presence is undeniable. In her solo song number ‘Jab Se Balam Ghar Aaye’ (’Since My Beloved Came Home’), her smouldering camera looks are irresistibly seductive while her feisty, hyperactive antics during a subsequent duet with Kapoor exude both innocence and a burning sexual desire. This scene and the ensuing love-making (only hinted at, obviously) perfectly highlight the progressive nature of this magnum opus from Raj Kapoor that has aged far better than even the more celebrated Sholay. Awara has never failed to make for grand viewing, no matter what the time period.
Screen legends: Nargis and Raj Kapoor
Widely available on DVD from distributer Yash Raj Films, the preferred option to own is nonetheless the harder-to-obtain but vastly superior release from India’s Shemaroo label which boasts surprisingly excellent video and audio quality for a film of this age. Picture clarity is very good and dirt, grain and print damage are kept at a minimum. Some excessive DNR spoils moving shots somewhat though, while a PAL-to-NTSC conversion also leaves us with some ghosting problems. Still, all in all, an undoubtedly pleasing treatment of an evergreen classic Indian musical.