Any serious account of Indian cinema would be incomplete without mentioning the role of Raj Kapoor’s RK- films, many of which were instrumental in forever changing the face of Hindi Film Industry- (Call it Bollywood if you will!). Great music, superb production values, excellent performances, sentimental themes with social messages- RK’s milestone movies had all the right ingredients in just the right amount! Producer, director, lead actor- not many have done justice to all these responsibilities in one film- Raj Kapoor did it time and again.
A school-dropout who started as a low-rung assistant in his father’s Prithvi theatres, Raj was always a dreamer. When he was a teenager, his apparent lack of focus in life worried his father no ends! But that dreamer finally found his focus and realized his dream- of ushering in a new era in film-making. Raj’s early films are reflective of his idealist socialistic tendencies and his youthful romanticism. In early years, Raj- the actor was a natural, original performer, who could say a thousand things in just one glance! But later he unnecessarily got caught up in Charlie Chaplin’s tramp persona, leading to an artificial style full of silly mannerisms.
His creative team (consisting of cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, composers Shankar- Jaikishan, lyricists Shailendra and Hasrat, singers- Lata and Mukesh) and his heroine-cum-muse Nargis were the pillars on which Raj’s dream factory was built. But his split with Nargis (who left him in 1957 to marry Sunil Dutt!) proved to be a bolt from the blue. That not only changed Raj- the person but also changed Raj- the film-maker.
Post- Nargis RK-films definitely show a film-maker who was becoming more and more obsessed with overt sexuality in stark contrast with the tantalizing sensuality in his earlier films. From Jis Desh Mein Gana Behti Hai’s Padmini to Sangam’s Vaijayanthi Mala to Satyam Shivam Sundaram’s Zeenat Aman to Ram Teri Ganga Maili’s Mandakini was a progressively downward spiral in Raj’s increasingly voyeuristic approach in portraying his heroines as primal sex-objects. Still (barring SSS!), till the end, he retained his audio-visually rich and thematically strong style of film-making.
Here is a look at some of the best RK-films.
A twenty-something Kapoor’s remarkable debut effort was autobiographical in many ways. His screen portrayal of a young man, disillusioned by bookish education and dreaming of changing the equations of showbiz was quite similar to his actual life. Raw and passionate about love, loss and longing, Aag expressed RK’s favourite theme of spiritual love being superior to physical love. This was the first time, Nargis and Raj played a romantic couple! Here, for the first time, singer Mukesh playbacked a song- (Zinda Hoon Is Tarah) for Raj, which started a memorable life-time partnership between the crooner and the thespian.
Even though Aag was critically acclaimed, it was a commercial failure and braving the industry’s sarcastic barbs (Aag mein jal gaya hai, ab Barsaat mein bah jaayega!), Raj Kapoor created this milestone musical film, which helped launch so many famous careers. Composers Shankar and Jaikishan, lyricists Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra and writer (and later a film-maker) Ramanand Sagar were some of the big names emerging out of Barsaat’s commercial success. Lata Mangeshkar- who sang most of the bewitching songs (like Barsaat Mein Tumse Mile Hum, Hawa Mein Udta Jaye and Jiya Beqarar Hai) in the film, went on to become a permanent fixture in the RK-camp. Thematically Barsaat once again highlighted virtues of spirituality over physicality in love.
Not yet thirty, Raj Kapoor showed maturity beyond years when he directed his father Prithviraj Kapoor in this K.A. Abbas- written dramatic story of a long disowned vagabond son and his stern judge father. The film gave out a strong message that ‘Criminals are not born criminals; often the surroundings and situations in which they grow force them into becoming law-breakers.’ The brilliantly filmed dream-sequence (Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi) was one of the highlights. The film enjoyed great success- in India and abroad.
Directed by Raja Nawathe, Aah begins promisingly as a candy-floss romance but soon regresses into an interminable sob-story. Raj Kapoor plays a dying tuberculosis patient, who leaves his lady-love (Nargis), asking his doctor- friend (Pran in a rare positive role!) to marry her! The sad ending was changed at last moment to make a happy one but even that couldn’t save this mediocre film from bombing at the box-office.
Shree 420 (1955)
Donning Chaplinesque persona, Raj portrayed a simpleton villager, who comes to city in search of a job, falls into bad company and ends up as a swindler, only to wake up to call of his conscience in the end. Vidya (Knowledge) and Maya (Money)- even the screen names of poor heroine Nargis and rich vamp Nadira were quite indicative of RK’s pet formula of painting poor as virtuous and rich as wayward!
Jaagte Raho (1957)
This RK-film was directed by Sombhu Mitra and also made in Bengali as ‘Ek Diner Ratre’. Once again, Raj is a simpleton rustic coming to a city. In the dead of the night, this simpleton villager wanders into an apartment society to quench his thirst. But his unkempt appearance and anxious behaviour leads a sentry to raise a burglar alarm. Trying to hide from the overzealous society-dwellers eager to nab a thief, now the poor man finds himself running from room to room- coming across all kinds of human specimen. Thematically the story is about falsity of outward appearances and once again, the villains committing dark deeds turn out to be the rich, respected men in white garbs!
The final shot of Nargis pouring water from the pitcher and a grateful Raj quenching his thirst is one of the most enduring images in Indian cinema. That was the last time this famous pair was ever seen together on screen!
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960)
Shot in the ravines of Jabalpur, this film on the dacoits once again carried forth Raj’s simplistic philosophy of ‘Situation forcing criminalization’ and ‘Love- not punishment’ as its solution. Raj plays a village bumpkin (for the umpteenth time!), whose simple, pure thinking finally changes a whole dacoit gang and convinces them to surrender themselves to law! Even though his cinematographer Radhu Karmakar was officially credited as the film’s director, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai bore the typical RK- stamp all over!
RK’s first color film was an intensely emotional love-triangle. Shot lavishly on foreign locations, Sangam added glamour to Raj’s bag of tricks- earning him the sobriquet of ‘The greatest showman’! Unable to convince Dilip Kumar to act in this film, Raj Kapoor extracted a most memorable performance from the replacement actor- Rajendra Kumar. Vyjayanthimala’s seductive dance number Buddha Mil Gaya (sung by a reluctant and embarrassed Lata!) is remembered till date.
Mera Naam Joker (1970)
Most autobiographical of all his films, Mera Naam Joker was Raj’s attempt to show a showbiz performer’s sad plight. Through a famous clown’s tragic but eventful life-story, Kapoor tried to show the frailty of human relationships and resultant frustrations of an entertainer- who has to hide his tears under a smiling mask! Unfortunately the film proved to be a commercial disaster, almost driving RK to bankruptcy. Still years later, Raj would pick up this film as his most favourite- saying that “As the mother feels an extra attachment towards her injured and lame child, I too have a soft corner for this film, which was rejected by people!”