Confident and fluid, effortlessly navigating precarious shifts in tone and genre, Raj Kapoor’s Awara encapsulates the essence of Bollywood’s Golden Age, generating emotion through the aesthetic contrast between its humanistic narrative and visual extravagance. As oxymoronic as a musical about a lovelorn street urchin sounds on paper, the bombast of the production manages to usher the travails of our indignant bandit to the heights of Greek Tragedy, fashioning his struggle with illegitimacy into a microcosm of India’s rift between its nobility and the impoverished that kneel at their feet. The end product is as innovative as it is poignant, marrying elements of film noir, melodrama and Hollywood spectacle into a cogent examination of Machiavellianism and the oppression of the Dalit caste.
Inserting a melancholy thread into the text through a frame story, the film opens with our protagonist, Raj (director and producer Raj Kapoor), confined to a cage, overcome by despair as he awaits trial for attempted murder. He is defended by a female law clerk returning an undisclosed favor, her youth barely disguising aplomb and self-assurance, captured in tight zoom as she vigorously interrogates the accuser. Coincidentally, Rita (Nargis), the virginal defense attorney, had studied under the victim on the stand, Justice Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor), and humbly requests his blessing before conducting her cross examination. Raghunath is a dour puritan, masking a secret beneath his chaste exterior that will unravel as he expounds upon his career in criminal justice. A torrent of betrayal is “rooted in the past” and the camera closes in on his anxious brow as narration sets forth a slow transition into rippling waves and recent history.
Foreshadowing a future of misfortune, an oarsman and band of field workers converge in a rhythmically infectious cautionary ballad, serenading a younger version of the judge as he lies in a ligneous raft with his adoring wife. The backlit silhouettes of the farmers obscure the sun, cloaking the light in an ominous haze, each of their words warning against a mythical thief known simply as “Jagga” (K.N Singh). Born an honest man, Jagga was accused of rape because of his low breeding and ostracized from his community and occupation. In retaliation, the once noble creature transforms into the embodiment of vice and deceit, kidnapping Raghunath’s wife to inspire doubt about the source of her pregnancy. Poisoned by the gossip of his neighbors and an overwhelming lust for power, the judge falls for Jagga’s gambit and banishes his wife to the slums before she can “bear the fruit of her sins,” this infirmity epitomized by a fast cut to his frame cowering beneath a dangling baby bootie.
Questions of honor, particularly in relation to rape and monogamy, clash with the film’s depiction of the intellectual and individualistic Rita, epitomizing the divide between India’s conservative past and its inevitable future. Ideologically, Raj Kapoor is a progressive, injecting his politics into the feature in a visual manner, allowing a thunderstorm to mirror his discontent. Prior to the judge’s dismissal of his innocent wife, Kapoor captured shots of the slandered spouse thrashing in her bed, reproducing a nightmare through rapid-fire edits and alternating angles, reflecting her emotional strain and fear. Raghunath’s suspicion and indignation are paralleled by the tempest, shot at a low-angle and in extreme closeup, intrusive enough to capture the inky circles surrounding his eyelids. As he casts his bride into the streets, the thunder crackles in anger, the curtains and chandelier feverishly swaying in stereo with the ecstatic drama.
In a flash of ingenuity, Raj Kapoor switches protagonists and disposition for the second half, manifesting life on the other side of the tracks through the eyes of Raghunath’s misbegotten son. Each lead operates in his own milieu, Raj residing in the sun-drenched streets of Bombay and the honorable judge resting in the lap of luxury, carefully concealing the darkness that lies beyond the facade of wealth and power. The remainder of the film deals in happenstance, aligning these disparate characters through chance meetings that feel natural, as if predestined. Taking on the lead role, Kapoor brings a Chaplin-esque physicality to his charming grifter, tempering bouts of slapstick with snippets of American slang and crafty con games, lightening the mood and providing the audience with a relatable male character.
Drawn to his father by opposing forces, Raj struggles to balance his fondness for Rita, a primary school classmate and current infatuation, with his obligation to crime kingpin and surrogate father figure, Jagga. Through this conflict, Kapoor illustrates the trappings of poverty, manifesting the hopelessness of the destitute as they attempt to succeed in a world designed for their failure. Circumstances don’t necessarily provide Raj with his happy ending, but the chemistry he shares with Rita is palpable and fulfilling, modestly captured in the soft caress of her dress with his fingers, a sensation that sends her twirling in rapturous song.
The lavish odes to their devotion function as more than an accompaniment to the action or entertaining digression, operating as the driving force behind the narrative, expounding upon the emotions of the characters and imbuing meaning onto the mise en scène. Kapoor’s clean, photographic storytelling uses bursts of light and shadow to stimulate mood, forging symbols in gorgeous black and white, arousing a sense of danger with the setting sun and opaque, cumulus clouds. Sensuality is implied in each embrace, insinuated by propulsive musical numbers that convey passion through flowing robes and the unseen carnal actions that accompany them. By bridging social class through his star-crossed lovers, Kapoor stresses a society that separates matters of the heart and the letter of the law, sneakily subverting the status quo through reckless romance and bewitching fits of hasta mudra.
Awara (R.K. Films, 1951)
Directed by Raj Kapoor
Written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (screenplay/story) and V.P. Sathe (story)
Photographed by Radhu Karmakar