When I sat down to watch Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951) I groaned at the prospect that rather than the 168-minute British print, it might turn out to be the 193-minute Indian version—168 minutes later, I’m almost sorry it wasn’t the 193-minute print. Wow—what a show! It’s definitely not like anything I’ve ever seen before—simply because it’s like about 30 things I’ve seen before, but all packed into one movie. Yes, I know the basic notion of the Bollywood film as a kind of grab bag cinema that stops dead for production numbers and isn’t necessarily known for being too good to wantonly “borrow” from other movies. And this certainly falls into that realm, but it’s also bizarrely brilliant in and of itself.
Everything about the film is fascinating—including the connections of its cast. Hindi superstar Raj Kapoor co-stars with his offscreen lover, Nargis. His father in the film, Prithviraj Kapoor, is his real life father, while Raj’s younger self is played by his little brother Shasji Kapoor (under the name of Shashiraj). It would be fair to say that Awara is truly a family affair. That’s also not uninteresting in light of the film’s plot, which centers on family relationships.
The story is somewhere between unsubtle socially conscious propaganda and outright melodramatic nonsense. Thematically, it sets out to prove that criminals are made and not born, and it does this. (That no one seems to realize that the criminal in question, Raj Raghunath (Raj Kapoor), isn’t really a criminal at heart, seems to indicate that there’s some validity to the heriditary angle.) But it does it through shameless melodrama. The fact that it is shameless, however, makes it work. The film doesn’t try to gloss over its trashy plotting about Raj’s father throwing his pregnant wife (Leela Chitnis) into the street because she was kidnapped by bandits and may have been despoiled by them (she wasn’t), causing poor Raj to be literally born in the gutter (in a musical number no less). Instead, the film positively revels in trashiness—probably because Kapoor knew that this sort of thing would sell. As a result, every silly melodramatic point is accompanied by a burst of music or a quick tracking shot in on the character or both. What’s surprising is how well it works—even while verging on funny in a post-modern sense.
Far more remarkable than the story, however, is the film’s breathtakingly eclectic style. Though made in 1951, Awara looks very much like a product of the early 1930s—with glimmerings of its own time. There are elements of Eisenstein, Chaplin, Sternberg, Rene Clair, Rouben Mamoulian, James Whale sitting side-by-side with 1940s Fox musicals and Universal adventure movies—and all of it given a dose of Italian neo-realism. These things aren’t just spread throughout the film. They’re very often in the same scene. The film’s first out-of-nowhere production number combines amazing location work (like Soviet propaganda movies of “the workers”) with studio shots that are as theatrical as the canvas backdrops in a James Whale picture. Scenes of Raj and Rita cavorting on a real seashore are followed by exotic studio settings that are so fake that it would be no surpise to see Dorothy Lamour wander into view. None of this should work together. Somehow all of it does.
Perhaps the surreal nature of the Bollywood musical is what makes the film work. Certainly, the performance of Raj Kapoor is a huge contributing factor. Kapoor was likened to Chaplin—not without reason. Indeed, two of the alternate titles for Awara are The Tramp and The Vagabond, both of which are titles for early Chaplin short films. The carefree attitude towards a life on the streets is not dissimilar either, but he seems more reminiscent to me of the heroes of early Rene Clair musicals. But since they have their roots in Chaplin, too, it makes only marginal difference. Whatever the case, this is one utterly remarkable film.