AWAARA (The Tramp) IS SO GOOD.
Is he robbing a Punjabi or Gujarati stereotype?
OK. OK. We need to calm down if we're going to write this review. But the DVD is still sitting hot in our DVD player, and we are still sitting, absolutely stunned, on our couch. This was one of those movies that, as Raj Kapoor sings at one point, you stare at, completely compelled. Our jaw dropped and stayed down for most of the film. We were very, very quiet. And all we kept thinking was, "Yes, Raj Kapoor needs to make movies now forever." Hence the whole Raj Kapoor hysteria of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Yes, we definitely get it now. All hail the Kapoors. We're not worthy!
It's not the plot that's amazing. It's interesting, but fairly standard. Cue the prologue. Once upon a time, a handsome yet stern judge (Prithviraj Kapoor! The patriarch himself!) broke convention and fell in love with a widow, Leela (Leela Chitnis). They were happy, and they enjoyed watching fishermen sing foreboding songs on the sea. One day, an evil dacoit named Jagga kidnapped Leela. He threatened to rape her, she swooned, she was revealed to be pregnant, and Jagga had a pang of remorse. Followed by a pang of pure evil! Since the judge was always harping on about how "judges father judges and dacoits father dacoits" (well, we're paraphrasing), the dacoit would show the judge that a judge can father a dacoit just because he thinks his son is a dacoit! Because it's more nurture than nature, no? You follow? We hope so.
The first song, which BLEW US AWAY.
Anyway, the stern judge goes demented and kicks his (innocent!) wife out of the house, along with his unborn (legitimate!) son. She crawls into a gutter and there, our little hero Raj is born. Raj grows up into a strapping 12-year-old played by a very recognizable and lovable SHASHI KAPOOR. The PPCC rejoiced. Apart from having fun identifying all the Shashi Trademarks in a quasi-pubescent Shashi (the mega-rupee smile, squeaky laugh and head wobble are all present), the story also continues: Leela struggles to give Raj an education and, at school, Raj develops a childhood friendship (foreshadowing into romance, of course) with little Rita, a girl a few castes up in the world. One day, times get hard and Leela swoons from hunger. Raj is kicked out of school, beaten up by the other kids, and taken under Jagga the Dacoit's wing. Jagga tells Raj he must steal for a living. Raj tries to find some roti for his mom, and is thrown in jail (where, ironically and symbolically, rotis are plentiful).
Cue transition (Wayne's World sound effects). Now Raja is a strapping 24-year-old played by RAJ Kapoor. For the past 12 years, he has become an expert pickpocket and thief in Jagga's gang. He's been in and out of jail. But now he has enough money to put his mother in a good home, and she turns a blind eye to his criminality. All is well - until of course Raj bumps into Rita (Nargis), and their childhood friendship blossoms into the inevitable romance. Rita has (cue Hindi Movie Irony) lost both her parents and become the ward of a stern judge. Yes, THAT judge. And that judge is still as stern as ever, who quickly disapproves of Raj, as the latter is a tramp and a vagabond. Much drama of the usual kind ensues.
We at the PPCC TOTALLY approve of the feminist, empowered Rita, and finally FINALLY a ballad where the woman seduces the man!
Another gorgeous song.
What makes Awaara SO GOOD is... well, are several things:
- The cinematography is incredible. Here we have an inventive, experimental, visionary film. Every shot is crafted and Raj Kapoor, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, makes the black-and-white film do things we, as amateur photographers, wish we knew how to do! The contrasts! The shadows! The textures! Sure, sometimes the shots are too framed, so that things ring artificial and cheesy. But this we noticed on perhaps two shots out of many, many more.
- The Kapoorness of it all is truly a pleasure. As readers will know, we at the PPCC have an irrational fondness for Shashi Kapoor, youngest of the Sons of Prithviraj. Yet this film shows us the true Power of the Kapoors: with both father Prithviraj and eldest son Raj excuding massive charisma, almost (but not quite) at Toshiro Mifune levels. Now that's charisma! Prithviraj is compelling, with silent film good looks and restraint, though he can't resist pulling the truly old skool "horror movie face" now and again. Raj, who was pleasing in Sangam (especially with those eyebrows of his - they were on fire, man!), is awesome in this. We didn't think we'd buy the Chaplin-esque rip-off trampiness of Raj's protagonist, and yet not only did we buy and sell it, but we totally fell for it too.
- The Raj/Rita-Raj/Nargis romance, with its parallels in reality. For those that don't know, Raj Kapoor and Nargis had a lengthy affair, and this shows glaringly in the film. The University of Iowa guys describe it as "electric" but we at the PPCC felt more that we were being intrusive, such was the intimacy between the two actors. It felt like voyeurism most of the time! We almost had to look away!
- The empowerment of the female lead, unseen of in even modern, post-2000 Hindi films. Here is a female lead who is professionally employed, educated, more socially empowered than the male protagonist, but who is also an equal in her relationship with him. No more dominant/submissive mumbo jumbo, here is a relationship where Rita can seduce her Raj as well as vice versa, and where it's the heroine who comes to the hero's rescue once he gets in distress.
- The moments of sublime aesthetics, due largely to Raj Kapoor's confidence and experimentation. For example, there is the famed dream sequence, wherein Raj envisions a heaven and hell which incorporate both Western and Hindu stereotypes (the clouds vs. fiery pits while Shiva looks on). In a moment that is both symbolic of the film's theme of attempted redemption and reminiscent of Dante's Divine Comedy, Raj struggles to free himself of varying demons' grasps and ends up crawling up the steps to heaven. Complete with ample dry ice and choral voices to accompany, Rita, like Beatrice, runs down the steps to meet him and help him up. And cue the mandolin, and cue the Hindi Movie-ness, and cue the sublime. The audience recognizes the melody: this is the same wonderful melody that played when Raj and Rita found each other and were reunited as adults, another beautiful scene. Then Rita sings: "Finally my lover has returned home!". Oh, just watch it for yourself:
Golden ratios, faces in profile, dry ice! IT'S SO GOOD!
- The fun facts of the film. Apparently Chairman Mao loved it. It was a huge hit in Russia. And Raj Kapoor was only 24 when he directed, wrote, and starred in this epic! Shades of Kenneth Branagh-esque precocious geniusness, no?