The Thrill of It All: Raj Kapoor at the Pacific Film Archive
Starting this week and running from July 19-Aug. 11, the Pacific Film Archive plays host to The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a six-film series of classic Bollywood films by Raj Kapoor, the superstar actor and director whose career spanned six decades. Beginning in the 1930s Kapoor was involved in dozens of films and his popularity in India gained him the nickname “The Great Showman.” He’s probably best known for his lovable tramp persona, modeled in part on Charlie Chaplin’s famous screen character, and he made some of India’s most popular films of the 20th century.
Kapoor began his career in 1935 at the age of 11—his breakthrough film was Neel Kamai in 1947. Many other hit films followed and by the time of his death he was revered as one of the kings of Hindi-language cinema—he acted in as well as directed, produced, and marketed many of his films. Handsome and photogenic, with wavy dark hair and blue eyes, and with a nimble physical grace and keen comic timing, Kapoor was made for the silver screen. As is often the case in India, several of his family members are also members of the Bollywood pantheon including his father Prithviraj, brothers Shashi and Shammi, sons Rishi and Randhir, and grandchildren Karisma, Kareena, and Ranbir Kapoor.
The PFA series is a nice sampler of his work, with films ranging from Aag (1948) to the Kapoor-directed Bobby (starring his fresh-faced son Rishi) from 1974. The films are lovely fables about life, love, and humanity, with Kapoor as the everyman searching for meaning and beauty amidst the chaos of modern times.
Barsaat (1949) stars Kapoor and Premnath as friends who woo two country girls, with Kapoor’s violin-playing idealist looking for love while Premnath looks for recreation. Nargis (who later starred in Mother India) was Kapoor’s real-life extramarital squeeze and she appears in five of the six films in the PFA series. In Barsaat she plays Kapoor’s romantic muse and the chemistry between the two is palpable, reflecting their torrid offscreen relationship.
I watched a DVD screener of Barsaat and even in that degraded format the cinematography was pretty stunning. Despite the fact that it was clearly shot partially on location and partially on a soundstage, the film successfully blends the two visual styles, creating dreamlike mix of realism and artifice. The film also artfully alternates between diegetic and non-diegetic music, further enhancing its surreal, mythical feel.
In Shree 420 (1955), Kapoor in full-on tramp mode is charming and entirely watchable. His lovable rube, also named Raj, wanders the mean streets of Bombay, where, as one character states, “high buildings are made of cement, people have hearts of stone, and only one thing is sacred, that’s money. ” The number 420 in the film’s title refers to the section in the Indian penal code dealing with theft, and literally translates as “Mr. 420,” or respectable thief. Written by K.A. Abbas (a well-known figure in India’s “parallel,” or neo-realist, film community), the movie is an interesting critique of unbridled capitalism, portraying the wealthy as unethical, venal predators who ruthlessly exploit the poor.
Kapoor’s innocent character is seduced by the corruption of the big city, much to the dismay of his love interest, the right-minded and honorable Vidya, played by Nargis. Much like her similar character in Barsaat, Nargis’ Vidya is the film’s moral center, using her expressive eyes and virtuous bearing to great effect.
Despite the harsh realities of life in the big city, Raj finds small kindnesses from the other poor and working-class folks he encounters—a matronly fruit-seller gives him free bananas and, after a brief misunderstanding, his fellow street-dwellers welcome him into their midst. The film’s climax evokes Frank Capra at his populist best, as Kapoor rages against the machine and rallies the downtrodden.
Bobby (1974), directed by Kapoor, was the first Indian film to feature the now-familiar Bollywood premise of young protagonists defying tradition in the name of love. Baby-faced Rishi Kapoor, his character named Raja (Hindi for “prince”), and sixteen-year-old Dimple Kapadia play out the classic rich boy/poor girl storyline, challenging the status quo with their caste-busting romance. The film reflects the youth rebellion sweeping the world at the time and at one point, astride a motorbike and dressed in leathers, Rishi Kapoor actually resembles Peter Fonda. Both of the filmic fathers (one played with great zest by Premnath from Barsaat, here with a middle-aged paunch) are tigers, loudly and insistently battling it out for top cat. As is fitting its 1970s release the costume design is amazing, with Rishi in red velour jumpsuits, long striped scarves, and turquoise bell-bottoms.
The film, which takes the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and filters it through a distinctively Bollywood lens, was the first Hindi-language film to focus on young love, and Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia ably fulfill their roles as the passionately yearning teen couple. Interestingly enough, many years later in his middle age Rishi Kapoor played a similar role in the 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, as a man who overcomes parental and societal pressure in order to pursue his true love.
The PFA series also includes Awaara (1951) another of Kapoor’s renderings of his famous little tramp character, Boot Polish (1954), and Aag (1948), Kapoor’s directorial debut. All three were available on preview DVDs but I instead decided to wait to see them on the big screen, as they should be. I’m sure I won’t regret it.
July 19-Aug. 11, 2012
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft Way
Berkeley, CA 94720