Rita Nargis and Raj Kapoor in “Awaara” (“The Tramp”), made in 1951, and a “masterful example of full-tilt film-making
Rita Nargis and Raj Kapoor in “Awaara” (“The Tramp”), made in 1951, and a “masterful example of full-tilt film-making

Charlie Chaplin may have been The Little Tramp, but unbeknown to most Occidental film fans, he had some serious competition in the screen hobo sweepstakes. I’m referring, of course, to Indian filmmaker and actor Raj Kapoor.

Born in Peshawar in 1924 and one of the biggest stars of post-independence Indian cinema, Kapoor was frequently cast as cheeky rogues struggling against the strictures of stuffy high society while pitching woo to ladies far above his station. Massively popular at home, he was also a huge star throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, and China.

Beyond the festival circuit, however, his films remain virtually unknown to westerners. Perhaps his greatest film, Awaara (The Tramp), all but forgotten in the U.S. until an airing on Turner Classic Movies in 2003, screens at Pacific Film Archive at 7:45 pm on Saturday, July 28th as part of the Archive’s current series, ‘The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema’.

Produced and directed by Kapoor, Awaara relates the Dickensian tale of a young Indian boy deprived of his birthright and condemned to a life of crime by his own father. The boy is played during the film’s first few reels by Kapoor’s son younger brother Shashi, while the role of his father — a judge who believes that criminals are born, not made — is essayed by the director’s own father, Prithviraj.

The circumstances under which Judge Raghunath condemns his own child are, to be polite, a wee bit far-fetched. Raghunath is responsible for the conviction of local bandit Jagga (K. N. Singh, initially adorned with a magnificently villainous moustache but later clean shaven); the rogue gets his revenge by kidnapping Raghunath’s wife Leela (Leela Chitnil Chitnis) and holding her hostage for four days. After being released unharmed, it transpires that Leela is pregnant — and the judge can’t help but suspect that Jagga is responsible for her condition. Convinced that the child will inherit Jagga’s ‘criminal genes’, he sends his wife to the gutter, where she promptly gives birth during a torrential rainstorm.

Eight years later, Leela has worked her fingers to the bone so that young Raj can go to school, where he befriends a pretty young girl named Rita. After an unfortunate incident at the wealthy lass’s birthday party, Raj’s head teacher discovers the boy has been supplementing Leela’s income by shining shoes, and promptly expels him for lowering the school’s tone. Patiently awaiting him outside the school grounds is Jagga, ready to prove that a rich man’s son can indeed be turned into a villain.

Fast forward twelve further years, and Raj, now a veteran member of Jagga’s criminal gang and an impossible romantic with the savoir faire and stripy shirt of a Jean Gabin, meets cute with the now adult Rita (Nargis, Kapoor’s stunning real-life paramour) after he snatches her purse. Their love is re-kindled, but can they overcome the barriers set in their way by India’s deeply class-conscious society?

Awaara’s soapy story is only one component of this masterful example of full-tilt film-making. Cinematographer Radhu Kharmakar displays a mastery of light and shadow the equal of John Alton’s, while the musical numbers of the Shankar-Jaikashan team are terrific, most notably the beautiful song ‘Awaara Hoon’ and a dance sequence featuring farm girls dancing with sickles (which probably helps explain the film’s popularity behind the Iron Curtain). Add in K. Damodar’s surreal sets, and you have a uniquely Indian blend of romantic comedy, crime drama, and (of course) movie musical genres. If you’re hankering for a three-hour long movie but aren’t interested in seeing The Dark Knight Rises, here’s your film.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...