Indian Cinema’s First Great Populist

01/05/2012 4:00 AM |

Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema
January 6-16 at MoMA

A bedrock figure in India cinema’s post-partition, pre-Sholay arthouse “golden age,” writer/director/actor/producer Raj Kapoor is often compared to Charlie Chaplin. Like Chaplin, an acknowledged influence particularly on his romances and comedies of the 50s, Kapoor introduced social reform and prole rights as the subtext of tragic and often expertly sentimental love stories like Vagabond (1951) and Boot Polish (1953, credited to Prakash Arora but ghost-directed by Kapoor). The parallel with Chaplin becomes even more irresistible when you get to Kapoor’s later films, like My Name is Joker (1970), a Limelight-style semi-self-reflexive, tragicomic ode to being a clown that, like some of Chaplin’s later films, was immediately met with derision and only later reconsidered as canon-worthy.

But what’s most striking about Kapoor’s filmography are the traces of David Lean-style visual poetry that ultimately shape them. Plaintive song numbers and shots of characters lost in their thoughts in Monsoon (1949) and Fire (1948) reveal Kapoor’s belief that melodrama was one of the most immediate and effective ways of representing the human condition. Under the banner of his R.K. Studios production house, Kapoor rose to popularity on the strength of his films’ epic scope and his total dedication to populist sentimentality. But it’s his eye for long shadows and singular, rapturously iconic images that makes him more than just India’s version of the Tramp.

Starting with Fire, his directorial debut and one of his most idiosyncratic films, Kapoor emphasizes personal tragedy and wracked meditation as significant indicators of meaningful relationships. These grandiose shows of emotion are grand acts of posturing but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re disingenuous. Or, as Kewal (Kapoor himself), a theater director with a conspicuous scar on his left cheek, floridly (but tenderly) puts it, “For every illusion that man loves to live, he knows how fragile those dreams are, like water bubbles that will burst at first touch.”

In the beginning of Fire, Kewal explains that his sad story begins with naïve hope and ends with a direful conflagration that makes him look like a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber character. But, because Kewal’s captive audience is his baleful bride (on their honeymoon night, mind you), we know that a happy ending is the real resolution to our love-sick hero’s trials.

Kewal tells his wife the story of how he and his childhood sweetheart Nimmi vowed to work together as adults on a play where, as they put it, he would play Romeo to her Juliet. The two children are separated at a very early age, leaving Kewal to spend the rest of his life searching for the girl that will fill the role of his loved one.

During one scene, in order to further stress the archetypal nature of Kewal’s quest to find happiness, Kapoor films his protagonist/himself in a pose particularly reminiscent of Lean’s world-bestriding heroes. He’s standing on a precipice staring expectantly towards the viewer, slightly to the right of the dynamically off-center composition. The camera dissolves four times, each time getting a little closer to Kapoor, but never so close that we can’t see all of his body from head to toe. His stolid body language is what’s being emphasized here, particularly how it contrasts with his environment. It’s the immortal pose that really matters, not the actor’s individual expression.

Kapoor’s more-is-more aesthetic is also frequently dazzling in Monsoon, a film in which love is equated both to drowning (“In someone’s eyes, you’ll see a river. You’ll feel like drowning in it”) and lighting fireworks (“That’s the difference between us. You only see the sparkle. You don’t see that to light the sparkler, you require fire”). Here, two wealthy friends, Pran (Kapoor) and Gopal (Prem Nath), travel to Kashmir and find themselves enthralled by two similar women. Gopal, being an insensitive playboy, flirts with a country girl named Neema (Nimmi). He predictably reforms his insensitive habits when he learns that Neema means it when she says that she’ll do something horrible if he doesn’t return for her.

Pran, by contrast, is a fount of Byronic knowledge. He’s practically already mourning his love affair with Reshma (frequent Kapoor collaborator Nargis), a beautiful country mouse that dies trying to prove her love to Pran, before he even meets her. “I don’t believe that love is either real or useless,” Pran enigmatically tells Gopal.

In Kapoor’s films, grand gestures are the hallmarks of illusory but palpable feelings. The scene where Reshma and Pran, filmed from a distance, stand together on a little boat near her house is tender and full of longing. The hurt and ardor that radiates from this image is a wonderful example of what Pran means when he ponders, “In this world, you suffer death before you die. In those painful moments, you need someone. [Only] then you realize the value of true love.”