It’s a general assumption that true artists are socially elusive. It’s a notion that they should not achieve a celebrity status. It compels them to be ‘intelligent and inventive’ in their work. This makes them conscious. However, there are very few artists who achieved popularity very early in their careers and became a cultural icon but managed to keep their artistic vision intact and showed consistency. One of them is Raj Kapoor, and for that fact, he is also one of the rare breeds of artists who could maintain a balance between the roles he had to switch as an actor, director, writer, and producer.
Being the son of the legendary doyen of Indian Cinema, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor was a child prodigy. He made his first appearance in an Indian movie at the age of 10 with 1935 film Inquilab. Kapoor then appeared in Neel Kamal in 1947, opposite to the immortal diva of Indian Cinema, Madhubala. He founded RK Studios in 1949 and became the youngest filmmaker of his era.
The study of Raj Kapoor’s filmography is very important not because he made films that reaped accolades or they were entertaining inasmuch as they were intense. It is his artistic vision, use of allegories and implementation of melodrama to depict the reality of post-independence India is what makes his filmography a subject in cinema. As an actor, he also emulated the tramp character of Charlie Chaplin, which Indian Audiences loved.
It’s always difficult to make a choice between Raj Kapoor as an actor or as a director. It will rather be interesting to peek into films in which he acted or directed or played both the roles.
Here’s the list of 10 such gems –
1. Aag  –
Aag is Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut. It is a coming-of-the-age drama which also stars his youngest brother Shashi Kapoor as a child artist. The film weaves the story of a guy named Kewal, who wants to pursue his passion for theatre and drama. His authoritarian father doesn’t allow him to do so. He succumbs to his father’s decision of pursuing law as a career only to resort back to his passion again.
The film addresses the family pressures youngsters still go through despite which passion always supersedes all other pursuits. However, it is not the only motive of the film. It also deals with the intricacies of love and draws a conspicuous chasm between infatuation and love. Raj Kapoor does it by making the protagonist lit his own face to save his friendship. In a much comprehensive way, Aag seems to be a man’s journey of moral discovery and depiction of true love and friendship. Even though the film was not successful at the box office but Raj Kapoor’s filmmaking style and his affinity towards melodrama were quite evidential.
2. Barsaat  –
By the time Barsaat had hit the box office, Raj Kapoor had become a good actor for his roles in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal, his own film Aag and Mehboob Khan’s modern melodrama Andaz. However, it’s Barsaat with which Raj Kapoor rose to prominence as a filmmaker. This film tells the story of two men of different molds and beliefs. One of them believes in true love, while the other one is a libertine.
The whole contextual setup of Barsaat looks romantic. However, there is a lot to dig in if we look at the film from a political perspective. The film recognizes the states which were resisted for assimilation by respective princes. Raj Kapoor uses allegory in the most subtle way by showing the ethnically attired girl wearing a Sari (the national dress) when she unites with the hero, drawing the parallel with the assimilation of Kashmir within the modern nation. The film had melodious songs and it also marked Raj Kapoor’s association with the music director duo Shankar-Jaikishen for the first time.
3. Awaara  –
Awaara is the best film in Raj Kapoor’s oeuvre as a director. The film tells the story of a guy named Raj. His father rejects him because he doubts that he is the son of a nefarious dacoit. The son goes on to become a thief under the tutelage of that dacoit. Later in the film, Raj falls in love with Rita, who is his father’s ward. Superficially, the film sounds like a characteristic Bollywood love story of ostentation. However, Awaara covers the post-independence India, poverty associated with it and the susceptibility of poor youngsters towards crime during that era. The best part about Awaara is its ambiguity about what the story actually wants to achieve. In the film, the judge believes in genealogy – a person whose father is a dacoit will become a dacoit.
The film, on the whole, does not defy the notion and shows Raj a good person despite being a thief because he actually is a judge’s son. The film also depicts a lot of evidence of what theorists called oedipal conflict when we see Raj’s inexplicable affection towards mother and hatred towards the father. The mothers in Indian cinema often represent the land and the father state authority. If that is the case here, then the protagonist becomes the victim of partition and negligence of state authorities, and that’s where the film marks its existence in the historical period.
4. Aah  –
The film was directed by Raja Nawathe, but the character played by Raj Kapoor makes this film very important. The film tells the story of a guy named Raj who mistakenly falls for ‘the wrong woman’ during the initial period of an arranged marriage proposal. In this film, Raj Kapoor has played the role of a guy named Raj who belongs to a rich family and is a dam constructor engineer. The concept also has a historical perspective, as in those days of early development of modern India; construction of dams across the country was at top priority.
This character depicts progressive India, India’s social status and the nation’s aspirations to become a developed country after the British Raj. The character also has an internal conflict of ambition to become a poet rather than an engineer but succumbs to his father’s choices, which is often an undercurrent theme in Raj Kapoor films. However, the film had a contrived storyline and defied ‘the sacrificial grandeur’, but is still known as one of the best performances by Raj Kapoor.
5. Shree 420  –
Raj Kapoor had emulated some part of the mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character in his previous film Awaara, but it is in Shree 420 that the act got its due appreciation. In this film, Raj Kapoor plays a country guy named Ranbir who migrates to Mumbai in search of work. He falls in love with a girl named Vidya. Later on, he feels the temptations of the riches of unethical lifestyle when a man pursues him to play cards to earn a living.
While his contemporary Guru Dutt used to capture the gambling culture in Mumbai as the main story and portrays it as something immediate in Dev Anand’s Baazi, Raj Kapoor uses the narrative as a caricature of the atrocities happening in post-independence India, and he further aligns the narrative towards the false hope and misgivings of the newly independent nation. The film sounds playful for most of the part as it is intertwined with a lot of Raj Kapoor style humor, but it is much serious about its storytelling. The film is mournful and a superbly crafted story of love and temptation.
6. Jagte Raho  –
Jagte Raho is much like other Raj Kapoor’s movies – progressive in nature and incisive about the historical context of the nation, but the helmsmen in this were Sombhu Mitra and Amit Maitra. In this film, Raj Kapoor plays the role of a peasant who comes to town from his village to find a job. Cops think that he is a thief the moment they spot him trying to drink water from a hand-pump. The rest of the story is from the point of view of the protagonist. He hides in an apartment where we get to see the shady lives of seemingly normal people.
The underbelly of the apartment comprises everything right from thievery, deception, brutality, bullying and other amoral acts. The film is an allegory of the hidden and dark side of the city which commits all sorts of crime in the darkness. However, the treatment of the film is more like a Freudian dream. Raj Kapoor delivers a terrific performance as the peasant and the film went on to win Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
7. Chori Chori  –
The film is an adaptation of Frank Capra’s ‘It Happened One Night’ and is directed by Anant Thakur. This is a rare movie in which Raj Kapoor stars but is not the center point of the film. The film depicts the story of a girl named Kammo who happens to meet a reporter during a bus journey, and the journey changes her life. Even though the story favors Nargis’ Kammo as the protagonist, but it is Raj Kapoor’s excellent comic timing that takes the cake. He plays the snappy and sarcastic reporter effortlessly. The moment when the character falls in love with Kammo and shrugs it off in ignorance is beautifully enacted by Raj Kapoor. His internal conflict and bewilderedness are palpable in the act. This is one of those films that depicted the inaccessible romance and chemistry between Raj Kapoor and Nargis.
8. Sangam  –
The film is a love triangle between three characters namely Sunder (played by Raj Kapoor), Radha (Vaijantimala) and Gopal (Rajendra Kumar). The film is backed by wonderful foreign locations and great music. In other love triangles, we see a guy marrying the girl on the grounds of being wealthy, but the girl still loves the poor guy. In Sangam, we see that the girl actually marries the less wealthy guy but secretly despises his rude ways. Even though the film was treated like a love story, but Raj Kapoor being the visionary had much to say. He touched upon issues regarding education in India, need of science education, life skills education and more importantly portrayed SOPs of the defense establishment and gun control and licensing. Raj Kapoor does all these so subtly that it becomes difficult to take these as lessons. They become just parts of the narrative structure.
9. Mera Naam Joker  –
Mera Naam Joker is Raj Kapoor’s magnum opus which took 6 years to complete and was a box-office disaster. The film tells the story of Raju who happens to be the best circus clown ever. It covers his life events from childhood to his last show. The events in Raju’s life are more like episodic memoirs. In the film, the character of Raju goes through a myriad of upheavals. However, it’s not only his life story that the film wants to depict.
The film is more like a moral discovery, about the pursuit of happiness even in the most pensive stage of life. More importantly, it artistically elucidates the concept of selfless love. Raju always carries a joker doll with him. He gives it away when he goes through heartbreak. However, the doll somehow returns to him. Raj Kapoor ingeniously uses the doll as a metaphor of his heart which is full of love. Mera Naam Joker was Raj Kapoor’s artistic triumph. It is now heralded as one of the best films ever made in Indian Cinema.
10. Bobby  –
Bobby tells the story of a rich guy falling in love with a poor girl. The main point of conflict in Bobby is the class divide, but Raj Kapoor intertwines the narratives with the generational conflict. It portrays a generation’s struggle to come in terms with sexuality when the next generation is casual about it. The guy is ‘forbidden’ by parents. They don’t have time for him. He finds love in Bobby, whose happiness is everything to her loving father. It was a stereotypical portrayal of poor as ‘rich at heart’ but rich as distant in terms of emotional quotient. It was also Rishi Kapoor’s first film as an actor wherein he starred opposite to Dimple Kapadia.
In his exemplary career which spanned almost over 35 years, Raj Kapoor has contributed with some quality films in Indian Cinema. As someone who had spent his life on the film sets, Kapoor depicted unassailable filmmaking forte. He went on to attain mastery in melodrama. Kapoor had a terrific music sense and thorough knowledge in every aspect of cinema. He used to indulge in each facet of filmmaking and that’s what makes him an auteur. Along with Indian audiences, his film appealed to Soviet audiences too.
Moreover, to depict the scenario of the present, he used to blend mythology with melodrama, something that Ritwik Ghatak also used to do. However, the difference is Raj Kapoor used to give the present a shape of epic, while Ghatak stuck to realism in all his films.
Over the course of his career, Kapoor collaborated with some great artists like the music director duo Shankar Jaikishan (who composed numerous melodies for him), Nargis (with whom his chemistry remains unparalleled in Indian Cinema) and Mukesh (who became his voice).
Kapoor was someone who knew the Indian audience more than anyone else. Even though his films did not reek of any kind of formula and he touched upon different aspects of society; critics and some part of the audience feel that his films had sexist content. Also, the characters he played were a narcissist. This is because his characters are always loved more than they love. However, his films give an account of hopes and misgivings of post-independence India, and he displayed the scenario covertly. Moreover, all the films in his oeuvre are full of entertainment and worth watching – a quality for which he is known as The Showman of Indian Cinema. It’s a title that only Subhash Ghai could earn after Raj Kapoor.
The Government of India awarded him with Padmabhushan in 1971 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1987.