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.

JOGAN (Dir. Kidar Sharma, 1950, India)

Jogan

Director Kidar Sharma is a name I stumbled upon repeatedly during my research and his 1950 Hindi film Jogan is one of his most popular works. Sharma is yet another key figure in the evolution of classical Hindi cinema and his output in the 1940s and 1950s offers some distinguished melodramas. What makes Jogan an extraordinary melodrama is the way in which Sharma constructs narrative largely through the soundtrack. This may seem like an obvious point to make about a Hindi melodrama made in the 1950s especially one with major stars but Jogan is not merely another film with the so called narrative interruptions. A Bhajan is a devotional song and many Hindi films especially ones with a strong religious theme used bhajans as a way of telling the story. Jogan uses fourteen different songs, mostly bhajans, to advance the narrative. This means that although dialogue is still important, all filmic elements are subordinate to the soundtrack. The story of Jogan revolves around the relationship between an ascetic or mendicant called Surabhi (Nargis) and an atheist, Vijay (Dilip Kumar). The religious figure of Surabhi has origins in the real life mystical singer Meerabai who has been a source of inspiration for numerous films, literature, songs and paintings in Hindi culture. Vijay’s atheism is challenged when he hears Surabhi singing a bhajan. The attraction is instantaneous and Vijay’s pursuit of Surabhi results him repeatedly returning to the temple to hear her sing. We discover that Surabhi has escaped an arranged marriage that would have ruined her and that rejection of worldly pleasures is necessary if she is to be successful at renouncing her life and embracing greater religious ideals.

In a way, Vijay is envious of Surabhi’s unflinching level of devotion to an ideological cause and way of thinking. Given the prolific nature of the soundtrack, the scenes between Vijay and Surabhi are admittedly scarce and this means the songs articulate levels of emotions that would have not been possibly with traditional storytelling techniques. Even though songs dominate, Sharma’s visual style and approach is somewhat understated and conveys a realism which seems at odds with the melodramatic form. Additionally, the theological dimension, with the emphasis on the conflict between atheism and asceticism, transforms the melodramatic form into something more sophisticated, radical and unexpected from a mainstream Hindi film. The understated approach is echoed in the low key performances by Nargis and Dilip Kumar who are shot largely in close ups as a means of ensuring the limited time afforded to their exchanges are foregrounded and not lost in the overwhelming soundtrack.