July 26, 2005


Awara (Raj Kapoor, 1951)

The plot is almost straight from Dickens or Victor Hugo. Raj (director Kapoor) career criminal stands in the dock accused of attempted murder of Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor, father of Raj), who believes criminals are born, not made. Raj is defended by Rita, the judge's adopted daughter (Nargis). Raj's defense is his life story. Years earlier, Leela, Raghunath's wife, was captured by Jagga, the bandit. As his revenge on the judge for wrongly sentencing him and setting him on his path of crime, Jagga, after finding out that Leela is pregnant, realizes that the judge will think the child is Jagga's and reject him, whereupon Jagga will complete his revenge by making the child a criminal. That is just the setup. To detail the rest of the plot with its confrontations, coincidences, triumphs, and reversals would be a 19th-century doorstop novel in itself. The rich plot is only one of the many great elements in this movie. Kapoor's direction is equal parts Chaplin (Awara could be translated as tramp), Welles (low angles), neorealism (Raj also seems to be straight out of De Sica), and film noir (a key scene takes place at night on a rain-soaked street), with a dash of Powell and Pressburger (the dream sequence is like a Hindu version of A Matter of Life and Death's heaven, with dancing). The Bollywood film aspires to be a Gesamtkunstwerk that people would actually go see. This one succeeds. Song, dance, architecture, literature, theater, painting. It's all here and it's all excellent.


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