AWAARA / THE VAGABOND / THE TRAMP (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1951, India)

raj akpoor

The Kapoor dynasty continues to be measured against the hugely popular cinema of Raj Kapoor and one can see why such a truism exists when isolating the brilliance of a film like ‘Awaara’. Though the 1956 film, ‘Jagte Raho’, may certainly have been imbued with a sense of outrage directed against social equality and also seemed to offer a more ideologically inclined manifesto keeping in line with the emergence of neo realism, it was the Kapoor directed 1951 spectacle ‘Awaara’ that blended poverty as a theme with expressionist melodramatic fantasies to produce cinema that bridged the gap between realism and escapism. RK Studios came of age in the early 1950s with the production and release of their first film ‘Awaara’ which unexpectedly opened to international critical acclaim. The generic label of showman often associated with Raj Kapoor detracts greatly from taking such a film maker seriously as an influential auteur who succeeded at marrying the traditions of Hollywood narrative cinema with melodramatic concerns. With ‘Awaara’, Raj Kapoor not only mastered the art of mainstream melodrama but he was able to outline and refine a template that is still being imitated today.

With a script by the celebrated and influential neo realist writer and film maker K A Abbas, who would remain central to Raj Kapoor’s career, ‘Awaara’ is essentially a story about a bullish patriarch who ostracises both his wife and son for personal prejudices, formidably articulating the social anxieties of class and caste that plagued a post partition Nehruite society. Such a familial estrangement finds a startling and feverish manifestation in the stark, monochrome compositions evident in the opening sequences, with much of the imagery recalling both Welles, Toland and film noir. Daringly mounted as a first production in a studio that had yet to be completed, Raj Kapoor’s handling of the ‘Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi’ dream sequence is an astonishing achievement in terms of set design, choreography and thematic trickery. Additionally, the uncompromising ending in which the figure of the vagabond remains a prisoner of class prejudice is principally remarkable for a mainstream film that offered audiences the romantic on screen star pairing of Raj Kapoor and the iconic Nargis. A spirited classic.

DO ANKHEN BARAH HAATH / Two Eyes, Twelve Hands (Dir. V Shantaram, 1957, India) – Reformist Metonymy

B_Id_288098_Do_Ankhen_Barah_Haath

Do Ankhen Barah Haath is one of director V Shantaram’s best known works. It has been labelled a classic yet in terms of popular Indian film discourse the film is rarely discussed unlike similarly revered Hindi films such as Mother India or Mughal E Azam. Perhaps this has to do with the film’s somewhat darker thematic explorations of social reform, masculinity and capitalism. It is a film that seems at home in the company of neo realist works such as Do Bigha Zamin, manifesting a reformist ideology shaped by Nehruvian politics. The story of reform is refracted through the relationship between a prison/police warden and six convicted murderers. Adinath, the warden, is played by director Shantaram and takes it upon himself to prove the prisoners/murderers can only be reformed by humanising them within a communal context. At first, the six men are compelled to leave the farm which they have been brought to by Adinath. In many ways, reformation is posited as a social experiment, criticised by Adinath’s superior as both futile and detrimental to society. Adinath’s persistency leads to success and the men forge together to transform the once barren farmland into a socialist enterprise that results in them selling crops to a local market as an honest livelihood. One of the clearest ways in which to read Shantaram’s film is as a contemporary parable or fable since the ideological conflict between oppression and reform is a universal one, transcending cultural barriers and offering a cathartic narrative that frames liberation against a vein of martyrdom familiar to us from Italian neo realist cinema.

Starting in the 1920s and finishing in the 1980s, as a pioneer, Shantaram worked across the spectrum of Indian cinema and his development as a director runs parallel with the film industry’s transition from silent to sound cinema. What his films share with directors from a similar era such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt is a fondness for expressionist imagery that recalls both German expressionism and film noir in equal measures. Ideologically, it is the presence of Champa, the sole female character in the film, a toy seller (played by Sandhya – Shantaram’s wife) who at first is represented as a disruptive force only to become a transformative figure, salvaging the dignity of the men and facilitating a premature gender equilibrium. The final third hints at a rebuke of free market capitalism since the men who take their crops to sell at the local market keep their prices at an affordable rate thus invoking the ire of the greedy merchants. The merchants feel threatened by the men and it is not long before they sabotage the farm and effectively neutralise any attempts to destabilise their economic hegemony. The ending in itself with the two eyes of the martyred Adinath looking down at the six reformed men is sentimentally manipulative but the melodramatic touch of Adinath’s imaginary tears turning into drops of rain becomes an indelibly humanist metonym for what is a noble cinematic enterprise.