On Sunday, June 26, TIFF, in partnership with the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) and the Government of Ontario, presents an exclusive, all-star salute to Indian film legend Raj Kapoor at TIFF Bell Lightbox. To celebrate this extraordinary event, we are proud to present the first major Kapoor retrospective in North America in nearly three decades—featuring a number of newly struck 35mm prints—and an exciting new installation from acclaimed filmmaker Srinivas Krishna.
“Raj Kapoor’s singular and gargantuan talent subsumes a variety of
influences and affinities—Chaplin, Frank Capra, Orson Welles—with even a
touch of Russ Meyer apparent in the later work. At times, his oeuvre
recalls the work of a 19th-century European literary giant whose
sympathy for the underdog, protean activity, inexhaustible energy and
penchant for excess earned him fame and a national reputation as early
in life as Kapoor. Yes, Raj Kapoor is—to a degree—the Victor Hugo of
—Elliott Stein, Raj Kapoor: The Showman Auteur of Indian Cinema
Actor, director and mogul Raj Kapoor was one of the giants of Indian cinema, and is synonymous with the rise of the monolith known as “Bollywood.” Largely unknown in North America—except of course to millions of fans of South Asian descent—Kapoor is revered not only in India but throughout the former Soviet world, the Middle East and beyond for the films he made during the Golden Age of Indian cinema.
While this period is normally identified with the 1950s, Bollywood—or as it is more politely known, Hindi cinema—had its roots in the 1930s, when a number of young Bombay entrepreneurs fused the young medium of cinema with Urdu Parsee Theatre, the popular fusion of English plays, Persian legends and the folk song-and-dance traditions of northern India. This gave birth to the “musical melodrama” that is still in evidence today. During the waning days of British colonial rule in the thirties and forties, this new format took the shape of “mythologicals,” special effects-laden versions of tales from the Mahabarahta and Ramayana which were enormously popular in both the city and the countryside. However, following the elation of Independence and the horrors of Partition in the late forties, the genre fell out of favour, replaced by a more sophisticated urban cinema infused with the nationalist dreams of Gandhi and Nehru, self-consciously political and obsessed with connecting cinema to the masses.
It was against this backdrop that Raj Kapoor founded RK Films in 1948, the most important studio of the post-Independence era. Kapoor’s acting career had begun many years earlier, first on stage with his father’s theatre company and then in small film roles from 1935 on. Most importantly for his evolution as a director, he served as an apprentice with the great pre-Independence studio Bombay Talkies, which was at that time flush with German directors and technicians inspired by the Expressionism of Murnau and Lang. Aag
), Kapoor’s first film as producer and director, reflects these influences while establishing the modernday, ultra-romantic style that would become his trademark: a combination of contemporary Hollywood melodrama with the moral lessons and metaphors of the mythologicals. Aag
also marks the first of many films in which he appeared with Nargis, the greatest female star of Indian cinema, who would later be immortalized as the star of Mehboob Khan’s epic Mother India
. The Kapoor-Nargis partnership was cemented when they appeared together in Khan’s giant hit Andaz
and Kapoor’s own Barsaat
; the latter film yielded the famous RK Films logo, a dramatic image of the couple embracing.
The staggering success of these films made Kapoor the biggest superstar of Indian cinema. Inspired by and cannily appropriating the traits of Western models, Kapoor combined the smirk and swagger of Clark Gable, the heightened emotions and showmanship of Gene Kelly, and most importantly, Charlie Chaplin’s underdog heroism and sense of pathos. Chaplin’s Little Tramp is the clear precursor for Kapoor’s most famous screen character: the vagabond in a too-tight suit, observing the bustling world around him with wide-eyed wonder. Unlike Chaplin, however, Kapoor moved his Indianized tramp (variously known as Raj, Raju or Rajan) up and down the social ladder, and into surprisingly unpleasant incarnations: self-obsessed artists, whiny rich guys and, in his maudit
masterpiece Meera Nam Joker
(My Name Is Joker
), a distinctly unfunny clown whose romantic yearnings verge on the pathological.
Kapoor’s early films focus on India’s new, frequently hostile urban environments—which had been swelled to the breaking point by the massive influx of post-Partition refugees—and are infused with a mild but deeply felt Nehruvian socialism that was largely the product of Kapoor’s long association with celebrated left-wing writer K.A. Abbas. (Their collaboration has frequently been compared to that between Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, who are prominently featured this season in our programme devoted to Italian neorealism; see page 40.) For Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, authors of Raj Kapoor: Harmony of Discourses
, Kapoor helped enable Indian society to embrace the disorienting changes of the twentieth century. Rejecting both the dogma of Communism and xenophobic traditionalism, Kapoor believed that certain Western ideas could be useful tools for bettering the lives of India’s poorest citizens. All of his films contain clearly enunciated statements to this end—including a belief in nurture over nature in defiance of caste-based logic, suggestions for how to increase the self-respect of the poor, and a questioning of punya, the idea of “merit” associated with giving alms to beggars—that are repeated and reinforced through traditional visual symbolism, music, dialogue and (Vedic) religious references. By couching these Western-inspired concepts in traditional forms, Kapoor demystified and normalized them for his domestic audience. In the view of Dissanayake and Sahai, Kapoor’s films have had a discernible effect on Indian mass consciousness and are prime examples of the power of film to not only recount history, but to reshape it.
Kapoor himself saw his impact in more modest terms. He saw his contribution as taking the latent romanticism of pre-war Indian commercial cinema and making it frank, intense and personal, creating a new idiom for the expression of emotion that had little place in traditional Indian literature and drama; his frequent use of the love triangle, for example, proved especially influential for later Indian films. That outsized romanticism found its greatest expression in the legendary song-and-dance sequences that appear in all of his films, and that have since become the stumbling block for many Western viewers in their first encounters with Bollywood. Unlike comparable sequences in Hollywood musicals, which prepare the audience for their segue out of “reality,” the musical numbers in Bollywood films tend to arrive without warning, are unapologetically removed from the narrative and contain music that can be a hurdle for even the most well-intentioned world music enthusiast.
Kapoor’s films not only allow us to see where these sequences originated, but to better understand and appreciate their unique synthesis of the Hollywood musical and Indian folk-musical theatre traditions. Kapoor was himself a talented musician with a strong desire to marry traditional Indian musical forms with new imports from the West. (He adeptly played on the cross-cultural significance of certain instruments such as the tambourine, which symbolizes the onset of love in Indian folklore and signals a kind of wild abandon in American rock ’n’ roll; Kapoor draws on both meanings.) His legendary collaborators Shankar-Jaikishen shared this belief, and between them they created some of the most famous and popular songs ever written—Mao Tse-tung himself was known to hum a few bars of “Awaara Hum” over breakfast!
In many of Kapoor’s films the song-and-dance numbers are set up as dream sequences, and are meant to function as “a psychic cleansing and exploration by the dreamer” (Dissanayake/Sahai) and as a means to give the audience a privileged look at a character’s most private thoughts. First introducing this idea in Barsaat
, Kapoor pushed the radical self-containment of these sequences in his subsequent films, freeing them from the formal transitions common in Hollywood musicals. Later on, Kapoor’s song-anddance sequences became a site of experimentation within an increasingly formulaic Bollywood industry: in Satyam Shivam Sundaram
), the musical number “Quicksilver Silver Fresh Pure Tender” is a clever but quite deranged synthesis of religious metaphor, swinging sixties outfits and full-on psychedelia.
This programme is largely focused on films directed by Kapoor and those he directed in all but name. Thematically and stylistically, it breaks roughly into two halves: the early films, most featuring Nargis, contain stunning black-and-white cinematography and urgent social messages; the later films, considerably more commercially-minded and delighting in rich Technicolor, largely feature Kapoor’s extended family in the lead roles and are preoccupied with the contradictions of India’s new class structures and moral failings—plus, one must add, a lot of T&A! (Many critics credit Kapoor for popularizing the “wet sari” sequence.) In between is his magnum opus and greatest commercial flop, the unclassifiable Meera Nam Joker
Though Raj remained the most internationally famous member of the Kapoor clan, other members of this grand theatre and film dynasty were and are bona fide stars in their own right. Raj’s father Prithviraj, a titan of the Bombay theatre and a prominent social reformist, appeared in the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara
, and also in the most important Indian epic, Mughal-E-Azam
, which we are featuring in this series. Prithviraj appears at the start of every one of Raj’s films leading a stylized puja
, a kind of blessing; he also occasionally takes roles in the films, often as a cruel father figure (e.g., Awaara
), creating a most interesting Oedipal frisson. Raj’s two brothers also became superstars: Shammi Kapoor, the ebullient face of Indian cinema in its 1960s “rock ’n’ roll” phase, is represented here by the film that made him famous, Junglee
; Shashi, one of the best-known Indian actors in the West, is featured in the Merchant-Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah
. Raj’s sons were all film personalities as well, with Rishi the most famous (seen here in his father’s youth-on-the-run epic Bobby
), although both Randhir (who directed Kal Aaj Aur Kal
) and Rajiv (the star of Ram Teri Ganga Mailli
) had notable careers as well. In their turn, Randhir’s two daughters Karishma and Kareena and Rishi’s son Ranbir are among the leading actors in Bollywood today.
We have also included other key films of the Golden Age era and beyond to help contextualize Kapoor’s work, including exceptional films from Bimal Roy (the elegant ghost story Madhumati
) and Guru Dutt (the celebrated tragedy Pyaasa
). Both directors were Calcutta transplants who provided a bridge between Bollywood spectacle and the wistful poetics and neorealist flavour of that other famous tradition of post-Independence Indian cinema, the Bengali art film, and its best-known practitioner Satyajit Ray. The great Mehboob Khan, Kapoor’s only rival as Hindi cinema’s most important filmmaker, is represented here by the Kapoor-Nargis-starring Andaz
and the legendary Mother India
, Nargis’ apotheosis and considered by many to be the most important Indian film ever made. This film and Mughal-E-Azam
function as parallel tracks to Kapoor’s urban narratives, updating and modernizing traditional stories to a post-Independence context. This series owes a great deal to long-time friends in the Indian film world. Uma da Cunha, Meenakshi Shedde and our friends at the International Indian Film Academy provided enormously important assistance, along with countless friends in Toronto and London. My interest in Kapoor’s films comes through the late David Overbey, the great Toronto International Film Festival programmer, who awoke me to the richness and complexity of Kapoor’s vision. This retrospective is dedicated to him.