Rightly described as a megastar, producer, director, actor and all-round showman, Raj Kapoor has permanently carved for himself a special niche in commercial Hindi cinema. The son of actor Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor started his career as a clapper boy but bagged his first film role at the age of eleven. In 1948, he set up his own studio and made his first feature film, Aag (Fire), which would become the first of his many early successes, including Barsaat (Rain) in 1949 and Shri 420 (Mr. 420;, a reference to someone who has a reputation for theft and deception, since apprehensions for such crimes are usually section 420 of the Indian Penal Code) in 1955.Raj Kapoor whole-heartedly embraced the Indian popular cinema from the very beginning. He made every effort to ensure that his movies appealed to every section of society, in particular the mythical 'common man'. Film historians and buffs have spoken of him as the 'Charlie Chaplin of India', since he often himself played a tramp-like figure who, despite adversity, could still be cheerful and honest, a 'gem of a man'. He appealed also, as in his films Aag and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hein ["The Country in which the Ganges Flows"], to patriotic sentiment, nowhere better commemmorated than in the famous lines from one of the songs in his films:
Mera joota hai Japani
The songs of his films endeared Raj Kapoor not only to the masses in India, but to audiences in large parts of Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union, where his films were to become enormous commercial successes. Many of his films were to be characterized not only by lively music, but by the extensive use of elaborate sets. The angst of the common man is portrayed through heavy brooding landscapes and sets with sharply contrasted light. Visual imagery would always be an important part of his films.
However, after the box office failure of his ambitious Mera Naam Joker (My name is Joker), which took six years to complete, his movies took a more sensual turn. The film Bobby (1973) introduced Dimple Kapadia, who would go on to become one of India's superstars, and established itself as the fore-runner of a new generation of romances targeted for adolescents. But the film owed its phenomenal success to other considerations as well. By the restrictive if not puritan standards of commercial Hindi cinema, Kapadia appeared in suggestive, some would say rather sexually explicit, poses and scenes. Raj Kapoor kept up with this trend of titilating sexuality in later films like Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985).
Though Raj Kapoor has been described by one critic as exhibiting "the carnality of a schoolboy" in his films, it remains indubitably the case that he has been among the most successful film-makers for nearly four decades. Thus his sensitivity to the requirements of film audiences should not be dismissed. The present generation of films from Bollywood still borrows several themes that had been perfected in his films, and some believe that it is still a compliment for a commercial film to be compared to one of his works.
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish; Willemen, Paul. Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. London: British Film Institute; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994
Kishore, Valicha. The Moving Image. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1988
Barsaat, Andaaz (1949)
Boot Polish (1954)
Shri 420 (1955)
Jagte Raho (1956)
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960)
Mera Naam Joker (1970)
Sathyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)
Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985)
Copyright: Vinay Lal, 1999
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