Thought Box



by Kamlesh Pandey December 17 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 15 secs

Raj Kapoor’s 99th birth anniversary was on the 14th December. Kamlesh Pandey recalls the influence of the actor, producer and director’s film Awara upon his own work, and also conversations with his son about the only showman Indian cinema has ever seen!

Long before movies were reduced to black boxes you brought home from video libraries in a cheap plastic bag like onions and potatoes, long before slow motion, quick cutting and back-lighting took away the burden of performance from an actor, long before faces became known by the cleavage they kept, long before satellite and OTT reduced the 10’ tall cinema stars to the compact size of a mobile phone, movies moved us because that’s what they were supposed to do - move people. They were worth missing classes and getting thrashed for bad grades. I do not know how many futures were sacrificed at the 20’x15’ altar, but a close-up of Dilip Kumar in ‘Devdas’ was worth losing a career, a smile from Madhubala in ‘Howrah Bridge’ was worth spending your entire month’s college fee on, and Meena Kumari’s voice caressed you late into the night, long after the end credits of ‘Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam’ faded to white, and you argued that the country could do with one less engineer or doctor and Trigonometry and Calculus could wait, but this night...this night belonged to Meena Kumari inescapably, unavoidably and inevitably.

Those were the days when the country was divided in three more or less equal parts - Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. In a Raj Kapoor constituency, you could get knifed if you were suspected to be a Dilip Kumar loyalist, and vice versa. Dev Anand exclusively belonged to the girls. They were not just movie stars, they were rites of passage. You grew up on them. You learned to love from them. You learned to suffer from them. You learned to walk, talk, dress and behave from them. You skipped classes but read life instead in the semi darkness of a matinee at 24 frames per second and agonized over the moral choices your stars had to suffer. And in the long, hot, lazy summers of the North, when even the girls reading Gulshan Nanda would not oblige you with a glimpse in their windows, you seriously weighed and analysed the choices made and the consequences suffered by Dilip Kumar in ‘Deedar’ or ‘Andaz’!

I was a Dilip Kumar loyalist so I never much cared for Raj Kapoor...till I saw ‘Awara’ in late 1960’s.

‘Awara’ did not belong to my generation. In its first run, it belonged to my father’s generation and was given an ‘A’ certificate, probably for ‘the corrupting influence it might have had on the innocent minds of the post-Independence young India’. Boys and girls from nice, respectable families were not supposed to see 'Awara'. But mercifully, by the time my generation bumped into ‘Awara’ in reruns, the ‘A’ certificate was withdrawn. Either young India had grown up or in a rare moment of introspection, the Censor Board realized its gross mindlessness. And by the time I was old enough to choose the movies I could see, 1950’s movies had returned to 60’s matinees. ‘Daag’, ‘Deedar’, ‘Devdas’, ‘Andaz’, ‘Aag’, ‘Barsat’, ‘Shri 420’ and of course, ‘Awara’ - they decided my career for me. India’s bridges and dams would have to be built, India’s sickness would have to be healed and India’s defence forces would have to fight...without me. Movies had got me.

Almost 25 years later, in 1987 while writing N.Chandra’s ‘Tezaab’, my third film in Bollywood and my first blockbuster, I revisited ‘Awara’. And, almost 35 years later, I watched ‘Awara’ and other Raj Kapoor films, minor and major, on television with my teenage son, I revisited the matinees of my youth and what movies used to mean to us, and rediscovered what they mean to my son and his generation. It came as a surprise to him that there were movies even before Amitabh Bachchan and that ‘they were not bad at all in spite of being in black and white, in spite of their arsenal being limited to switch blades and in spite of their villains’ ransom rarely exceeding Rs.10,000.

‘Tezaab’ was intended to be ‘Awara’ of the 1990s (only in its social concern, not in its story). There are scenes in ‘Tezaab’, which are hidden tributes to Raj Kapoor - the introduction of the hero in ‘Tezaab’ echoes the introduction of the villain in ‘Awara’, for example. And the love scene between Munna (Anil Kapoor) and Mohini (Madhuri Dixit), where he slaps her and threatens to kill her and himself if she left him for another man, echoes the tenor and resonance, if not the situation, of the violently erotic beach scene between Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Even my son noticed, as I and my generation had, the rich and affluent India embodied by Nargis literally kneeling before the poor and underprivileged India embodied by Raj Kapoor and begging to be embraced. ‘It must have soothed the egos of the poor people then,’ my son observed, ‘No wonder it was a hit.’ It was a surprising insight from a generation growing up on long movie titles that consider words like ‘Hum’, ‘Dil’, ‘Pyar’ and ‘Hain’ mandatory.

‘Tezaab’ was a violent love story. The India of ‘Awara’ was still innocent and hopeful. But by the late 1980’s, India had come a long way - the introduction scene of the villain had turned into the introduction scene of the hero. And violence had become a way of life. In ‘Awara’, K.N.Singh’s knife could scare the hell out of the audience. In ‘Tezaab’, the audience needed fireballs, massive destruction and a woman scarred with acid. ‘Awara’ was simply about the germs of crime infesting young minds of India and a generation going ashtray, but it was still circumstantial. In spite of the disillusionment, there was hope if a sanitized, germ-free environment could be created.

‘Tezaab’ was about the rape of hope by the reality of the past 40 years. The great betrayal of young India by the shift taking place from the overarching politics of socialism to capitalism and thus  leadership having to surrender to it. The corruption of values where even parents literally hung on like leeches to their offspring’s bodies and exploited them for their own greed. By the late 1980’s, the dividing line between heroes and villains had blurred. Everybody could be suspected. Nobody could be trusted. Dreams were not just deferred, they were lost forever.

But the power, passion and raw energy that drives ‘Tezaab’ was courtesy that one close-up of Raj Kapoor in the courtroom behind the wire mesh. Silence has rarely been so vocal, words have rarely failed an actor so eloquently. The hunger, the frustration, the anger, the bitterness, the helplessness, the pain of an entire post-Independence generation, everything is in that one close-up. I remember telling Anil Kapoor to just look at that close-up every time he faces the camera for ‘Tezaab’ - he managed to win the Filmfare Award for the Best Actor that year! And that was just Raj Kapoor the actor. He also produced and directed ‘Awara’. And he was only 25!

My son wouldn’t believe it. ‘’Only 25?” he was incredulous, “You are kidding! Why”. I reminded him, “Sooraj Barjatya was 25 when he made ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, Aditya Chopra was 25 when he made ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’, Karan Johar was 25 when he made ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’. “Oh, but they didn’t make ‘Awara’”, he went on, “You guys were very, very lucky indeed. You had ‘Awara’, you had ‘Shree 420’, you had ‘Aag’ and ‘Barsat’, you had ‘Jaagte Raho’, you even had ‘Boot Polish’ and ‘Ab Dilli Door Nahin’ that I hadn’t even heard of. I mean how lucky can you get? It’s unfair”.

To a generation for whom Raj Kapoor is more the grandfather of Karishma Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor than the actor, producer and director of ‘Awara’ and the rest of them, it was reassuring to know that good movies move - anytime, anywhere, anybody. And it is as much tragic to know that the ‘Bobby’ clones are still being recast with a whole new attitude, swagger, style to suit the young India today when one star of the film ‘Bobby’ has left us and the other is a proud grandmother. Is it really that hard to outgrow Raj Kapoor?

My son is lucky he still hasn’t seen ‘Daag’, ‘Deedar’, ‘Devdas’ and ‘Andaz’. Not to mention ‘Pyasa’, ‘Kagaz Ke Phool’ and ‘Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam’. Definitely not ‘Teesari Kasam’, ‘Sujata’ and ‘Bandini’. And a million others. He would have been not just unhappy, he would have been raving mad. He thought ‘Deewar’ was the last word till he saw ‘Gunga Jumna’ and ‘Mother India’, and for the first time understood that his father’s preoccupation with the movies of the 50’s and 60’s was not merely nostalgia, it was memory of delicious food haunting a man starving for 30 years.

Probably, our movies will never be able to outgrow Raj Kapoor. ‘Awara’, ‘Shree 420’, ‘Aag’, ‘Barsat’, which are, of course, acknowledged classics. But take a minor film like ‘Ab Dilli Door Nahin’. Or, ‘Boot Polish’. My son asked if ‘Boot Polish’ inspired ‘Salaam Bombay’? I really do not know. All I know is that ‘Boot Polish’ still brings a lump to my throat, ‘Salaam Bombay’ never did. I don’t even know if movies are supposed to bring lumps to your throat. But the song ‘Nanhe-Munne Bachche Teri Muththi Mein Kya Hai’ still hurts as much. Especially when David as John Chacha asks the two kids, Baby Naaz and Ratan Kumar, to tell him what the future holds because he won’t be there to see it, and they tell him that in tomorrow’s world, no one will go hungry and misery won’t rule. The faces of the two kids lit with hope, not just studio lighting, deserved to be enshrined in the pages of the Constitution Of India forever. In fact, I had written a musical street-play for ‘Tezaab’, which used the line ‘Nanhe-Munne...’ as a refrain and was a dark, funny spin-off of the song reflecting John Chacha’s future, which had now become the present. We could not use it because of the length of the film.

After watching ‘Boot Polish’ together, I let my son have a look at the street play to see what the ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ generation thought of it. It was reassuring to see that it connected. ‘Now I know why,’ my son smiled, ‘You can’t write blockbusters that solve all personal problems with the help of a Ganpati idol atop a music system.’

Certainly all was not lost for a generation told by our movies to believe that the only problem in life was which man or woman to marry, the only moral choice to make was which gun to pick up and the only pain in life was a particularly rude pimple which just won’t go away...not even with the help of a Ganpati idol atop a music system.

‘Ab Dilli Door Nahin’ was a minor film even by the 1950’s standards. Literally no stars. A simple story - a boy trying to meet Jawarlal Nehru to get justice for his father who is accused of murder he did not commit. Directed by one of Raj Kapoor’s assistants, it had Motilal, Sulochana and Master Romi in the lead. Anwar Hussain was the bad guy. Yakub and Jagdeep played pickpockets who helped the kid. I was permitted to see it in the first run because (a) it had a few shots of Jawaharlal Nehru, (b) it was about the perseverance and dedication of a kid to save his father’s life. Both politically and culturally right elements to imbibe. I still remember the applause when Nehru appeared on the screen. My son was too engrossed in the story to even notice Nehru. ‘Wasn’t that stock footage?’ He showed his knowledge. After watching my friend Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s ‘Mere Pyare Prime Minister’, which coincidentally followed the similar story line of a kid travelling to Delhi to meet the Prime Minister but had failed miserably at the box office, I had advised him that he should have watched ‘Ab Dilli Door Nahin’ for some helpful tips he could have used.

“So, in your time,’ my son observed, ‘not all movies were love stories or revenge stories”. “Yes, we even had a ‘Jaagte Raho’ which was about a thirsty man from a village trying to find some water in big, bad Mumbai,” I offered. “Isn’t that on Wednesday?” he still hung around the TV before settling down to his homework. “Yes, in the afternoon”, I informed. “Shit! I’ll be at school!” he was visibly despairing. “It may have a repeat in the evening,” I consoled. “But who was the old actor who played the father? He was so natural!” he was not just trying to postpone getting down to homework, he was genuinely interested. “Motilal”, I told him, “The Prince of effortless performance”. “Why don’t we have actors like him anymore?” he continued, “And who was that ugly pickpocket? He was unbelievable!” “Yakub”, I fed his growing hunger. “Why don’t we have actors like him anymore?” he repeated. “That’s the second time you have asked that question,” I reminded him, “Doesn’t it answer your question?” “I know”, the Shah Rukh Khan fan slouched and shuffled to his room to wrestle with his homework.

I do not know if Rani Mukerji’s voice caresses him late into the night, long after ‘Ghulam’ is over on cable and live Dandia is on. I do not know if Shah Rukh Khan, Govinda and Aamir are mesmerising enough to steal his future from him. I do not know if he spends his pocket money on Karishma’s and Kareena’s movies. I do not know if moral choices made by Salman Khan in his movies really give my son sleepless nights. I do not know if 40 years from now, he would watch ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, ‘Dil To Pagal Hai’ and ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ with his son and/or daughter and tell them how great Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir and Govinda were in the 1990’s, and how the crop of stars in the year 2040 is nowhere near their enormous talent.

Nor do I know if he would catch ‘Ab Dilli Door Nahin’, ‘Boot Polish’, ‘Awara’ or ‘Shree 420’ on an archive channel one late night and remember his father who grew up on Dilip Kumar and introduced him to Raj Kapoor’s movies, who paid hidden tributes to ‘Awara’ in his ‘Tezaab’, and who had these lines pinned to his board in front of his desk: NEVER FORGET THAT YOU ARE HERE NOT TO MAKE A BUCK OR A NAME FOR YOURSELF, BUT TO REPAY THE MOVIES WITH THANKS, AND WITH INTEREST, FOR THE DELIGHT THEY HAD BROUGHT TO THE MATINEES OF YOUR YOUTH.

I do not know. All I know is that it is very hard to outgrow Raj Kapoor no matter how old you are.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.