Thursday, December 18, 2014

The joker and his disguises - Raj Kapoor as innocent and masochist

Raj Kapoor, whose 90th birth anniversary was earlier this week, is a polarising figure for many movie buffs. Even those who don’t much care for his screen persona (because it is mawkish or narcissistic), or have reservations about aspects of his films, tend to agree that he was – from a very early age – one of mainstream Hindi cinema’s leading auteurs. And that his important films, beginning with his directorial debut Aag in 1948, and continuing till at least Bobby 25 years later, were deeply personal, even autobiographical in places. If one function of art is to present a particular, individual sensibility – even if it is a discomfiting one – then there is little doubt that Kapoor was an artist working out his compulsions through a commercial medium.

There is plenty in his work for the cine-aesthete too. For a moment, set aside the Chaplin homages, the women in white, the romantic showboating, the father-son conflicts, the idealising of male friendship – and instead watch the brilliantly show-offish dream sequence in Awaara, or the smaller moments in that film, such as the scene where the judge suspects that his wife was unfaithful: the slanted compositions, the use of lighting, the shadows from a rain-soaked window playing across Prithviraj Kapoor’s handsome face. This is style-driven cinema helmed by a young man excited by the tools and possibilities of film; it reminds me of Orson Welles’s description of how he felt when given complete freedom to make Citizen Kane at age 25 (“It was the best toy-train set a boy ever had”). That isn’t to make a facile comparison, but to point out that Kapoor had genuine filmmaking panache, along with a knack for bringing together a team of people whose sensibilities matched his own – from lyricist Shailendra and composers Shankar-Jaikishan to screenwriter Inder Raj Anand and cinematographer Radhu Karmakar – and making them part of his extended family.

And of course, there are the women – from Nargis to Padmini to Vyjayanthimala – and the conflict one senses in Kapoor’s attitude to them. An easy interpretation is that he was a controller, an exploiter or a voyeur: playing caveman by dragging Nargis around in Awaara; draping much younger heroines like Zeenat Aman and Mandakini in semi-transparent clothes in his later films. Yet to look closely at his work is to be fascinated by a duality in his screen image – one that is backed by the revelations made in such books as Raj Kapoor Speaks (by his daughter Ritu Nanda) and Madhu Jain’s The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema.

On the one hand, there is the naïf of films like Awaara and Shree 420 – embodying pastoral innocence, a misfit in a corrupt, modernising world – or the good-hearted clown who makes others laugh while hiding his own sorrow under greasepaint. Yet, within the DNA of this iconic character is also a nastier, sulkier Raj Kapoor – the masochist who seems to expect rejection and disappointment all the time and then, when it comes, almost revels in it. In his extravagant 1964 romance Sangam, one of our most fully realised melodramas, the conventional hero is the sensitive, new-age lover Gopal, played by Rajendra Kumar, while Kapoor’s Sundar is the suspicious, animalistic alpha-male who wants to possess the woman (and seems faintly aware that he isn’t worthy of her). And in Mera Naam Joker, often seen as Kapoor’s emblematic film, his character Raju keeps falling in love with – and idealising – different sorts of women, but the intensity of his feelings is never reciprocated in the terms he requires. (What exactly those terms are, though, is hard to say. Is it something as straightforward as sexual desire? Probably not. In Raj Kapoor Speaks, Kapoor mentions his early attraction towards his mother and says that his interest in female nudity may have begun during his childhood bathing sessions with her. It certainly casts a new perspective on the knotty father-son relationship in Awaara!)

While being mindful of the dangers of pop-psychology, the relationship between Kapoor and his women (both as it was rumoured to be off-screen and as it was in films like Sangam) reminds me a little of Alfred Hitchcock and his blondes. One view of Hitchcock (presented in studies such as Donald Spoto’s book The Dark Side of Genius) is that this short, fat man, constantly surrounded by glamorous actresses who may have seemed to him out of reach, used his films to exorcise his
demons – casting Ingrid Bergman (who was on the verge of “leaving” Hitchcock for another director, Roberto Rossellini) as a sickly, dominated woman in Under Capricorn, or putting the attractive Tippu Hedren in real danger during the shooting of the climactic scenes in The Birds. But a more nuanced view comes from Camille Paglia, who responded to the charge that Hitchcock was “clearly a misogynist” with a discussion about the push-pull relationship – adoration mixed with fear – that male artists from Michelangelo downwards have often had with their female subjects. “Any artist is driven by strange and contrary forces,” she said, “The whole impulse is to untangle your dark emotions” adding that before rushing to make one-dimensional judgments, one should remember that “we are talking about a man who made films in which are some of the most beautiful and magnetic images of women that have ever been created”.

Some of this applies to the portrayal of women in Kapoor’s cinema: the worshipful gaze coexisting with the need to pull down or debase. Watch how lovely and elegant Vyjayanthimala so often is in Sangam (as in the gorgeously shot “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, where she is courted by the gentle Gopal), and then see how she is made to look outlandish in the “Budha Mil Gaya” scene. By revealing as much of himself as he did in his work, Raj Kapoor also revealed a great deal about the many dimensions – including the uglier ones – of love and romantic obsession. The clown had quite an assortment of masks.

[Did a version of this for Business Standard]

P.S. Below is the “Yeh Mera Prem Patra” sequence, including a two-minute prelude before the song itself starts – one of Hindi film’s finest depictions of idealised love, where one is left in no doubt about the high-mindedness of Gopal’s love. It makes an interesting contrast with the “Bol Radha Bol” song in the same film, which is much more physically charged – the sangam in that case being not just of the mind and heart but of the body. And there are the lyrics, suggesting two different views of love. Where Gopal puts Radha on a pedestal, comparing her to both the sacred rivers Ganga and Yamuna, Sundar is more worldly and self-absorbed – he likens his own mind to Ganga and Radha’s mind to Yamuna, and calls for a union. But in this story about two different forms of possessiveness, one can also consider that Gopal, for all his decency, is treating Radha as a goddess-statue rather than a human being – which is why it is so easy for him to “sacrifice” his love in the name of friendship, without consulting her.

And here, just by way of a small tribute, is one of my favourite RK songs (which conveniently segues here into another fine song):


  1. Nice post. I find him unwatchable but there are so many interesting stories about him. My favourite is when he approached Vijay Tendulkar after watching 'Ardh Satya' for writing a character for 'Ram Teri Ganga Maili'

    1. Yes, I think it's easy to form impressions about him just from watching his major films (and his own performances in them), but there is probably a lot more to him than meets the eye. And many, many interesting stories. Kumar Shahani (who lived and worked in a very different universe from the RK one) told me about how egalitarian he was, how willing to associate with all kinds of people, including those whose life experiences and ideological bents were very different from his own.

  2. Oh, interesting! True, even for this Tendulkar story, it is easy to form impressions. One could read the whole anecdote about RK calling up at Tendulkar's house and talking to his son like a warm-hearted uncle to manipulate them. One could even say that that's how he was, he could not believe that people could tell him no.

    On large-heartedness, similar things have been said even about Dev Anand. I remember reading how happy Satyajit Ray was to help Merchant-Ivory in whichever way he could, when they were making 'Shakespeare-Wallah'.

  3. Great piece. Oh, how I struggle with Raj Kapoor. I absolutely adore Shree 420 - it's one of my all-time favorite films. It has a charming love story that (unlike Aag or Barsaat) doesn't erase the personality and agency of the woman. It has a flawed hero learning some good lessons and redeeming himself without being a pompous ass. And it has some appealing contextual commentary on the path of the young Republic.

    But in my experience no other film of his comes close; of the ones he is in, Awaara is the only one I've seen that I would even consider watching again, much less actually enjoy. I wrote a diatribe about the insufferable Aag, the end-to-end egotism and misogyny was so repulsive I hardly knew where to begin. And I've just recently watched Barsaat and have been toying with angles from which to write about it and its twisted elevation of the notion of joyless love defined only by suffering and longing. This incarnation of Raj Kapoor is just too far up his own rear end to tolerate. It's an immature notion of art and love, that you are not a true artist or lover unless you are dreamy and miserable all the time.

    1. Thanks, Carla. Must read your Aag piece. You have probably watched RK's early films more recently than I have - the only ones I have seen in recent years are Sangam, Awaara, MNJ and Bobby. And of course the non-RK-directed Anari, which is an RK film at heart in some ways, but has a gentleness and a refusal to be too self-indulgent, qualities that I think come from Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

      Oh, how I struggle with Raj Kapoor.

      You speak for so many of us. Including, I suspect, RK himself.

    2. Certainly more to him than meets the eye.
      Prem Rog has no egotism, no misogyny, no exploitation or voyeurism, no self-indulgence. But it is still a very RK film

  4. "the masochist who seems to expect rejection and disappointment all the time and then, when it comes, almost revels in it."
    - Spot on! Reading this I understood why his male characters, esp the ones that he himself plays, makes me uncomfortable. Sat through Sangam, and was really angry at the end of it - not only at Sundar, but also at Gopal, because as you mentioned, neither seemed to be thinking about Radha.

    1. Oh yes, it is very much about man-love in the end. But however disturbingly, it does reveal things about very real social attitudes: different manifestations of possession/control, the tendency to deify and objectify women at the same time, etc.

  5. Also RK's films are a very mixed bag from an ideological standpoint.

    In general, he is very much left-of-center, a product of Nehruvian India. His films, by and large, mock rich people instead of looking up to them. In RK"s world the poor are generally helpless and conspired against, lacking the means and devices to do anything about their poverty.

    However in certain aspects, especially pertaining to gender roles and treatment of women, he is rather regressive and conservative in the extreme, which is surprising given his left-wing views in other matters.

    Very curious and interesting mix.

  6. RK - an important artist. A pioneer in Indian melodramatic technique.

    A lot of the narrative techniques that we take for granted today in Indian film originate with RK. Especially with Awaara. Some examples which strike me as being "original" in that film, but very cliched now because of numerous imitations.

    a) The "Maa" character uniting with her long lost husband in the last scene but not before getting struck by a car.
    b) The lawyer husband banishing his wife suspecting her chastity (this technique of course dates back to pre-christian times what with the ramayana story, but I think this was probably the first time it was used on the silver screen)
    c) The heroine hosting a birthday party, which is attended by the hero (this has been imitated umpteen times in god knows how many films)
    d) The hero losing his way through the city and accidentally landing in the heroine's house (who happens to be his childhood friend) - again an oft-imitated melodramatic technique.

    These devices seem very cliched to us. But I guess they must've stunned the 1951 audience with their originality.

    So RK is indeed very important from the standpoint of the development of the Bollywood melodramatic tradition. But I don't find his films that interesting as social commentaries. For e.g. : That film Sangam (very good entertainment yes) depicts a Punjabi upper crust that is no doubt mythical. I don't think such a crust existed in 1964 India, which was a lot poorer, wretched and hidebound. RK seems to inhabit in some mythical universe.

    I find Rajendra Kumar's films a lot more interesting. Especially the movies he starred in for Madras based studios. Genuine social commentaries which critique Indian society from within and not without.