Raj Kapoor in Awara
  • Raj Kapoor in Awara

“That’s Bollywood length!” a friend exclaimed when I told him the new Transformers movie was two hours and 45 minutes long. He was almost as surprised to learn that Age of Extinction wasn’t much longer than any of the other three Transformers movies—not because he’s unfamiliar with extralong blockbusters, but because he thought that no one made them outside of India. “So, do these Transformers movies have musical numbers and big slapstick sequences and melodramatic subplots about long-lost twins getting reunited?” You could say they have some slapstick, I replied, but none of the other two. “Then what do they do with all that time?”

Imagine his disappointment when I said the filmmakers devoted most of it to scenes of big, computer-animated robots fighting each other. “They don’t sing and dance just a little bit?” Sorry, friend.

I’m still a novice when it comes to Bollywood, though in the past two years I’ve started familiarizing myself with such major figures in that cinema’s history as: Ramesh Sippy, who directed the 1975 classic Sholay and other epic productions; movie star Amitabh Bachchan, who delivered two of the definitive Bollywood performances in Don (1978); and Raj Kapoor, a director-producer-actor who made some of the most popular of all Indian blockbusters. These artists share a prodigious sense of showmanship rarely seen in American blockbusters today. They refused to give their audiences just one movie at a time—over the course of three hours, they gave them a bit of five or six. What a deal!

Last weekend I watched Awara (1951), one of Kapoor’s most beloved films, which I’m embarrassed never to have seen it until now. The movie is such grand entertainment—I’m sure I would have loved it as a kid. In this overstuffed feature (I’ll refrain from labeling it with a genre, since it draws on so many), Kapoor treats us to courtroom drama, a crime story, some Dead End Kids-style social portraiture, a love story, Chaplinesque comic pathos, a dream sequence, and of course singing and dancing. It’s the cinematic equivalent of sampling a wide-ranging buffet. By comparison, Transformers: Age of Extinction is like eating a two-and-a-half-pound cheeseburger with nothing more than a little side “salad” (really just lettuce, shredded carrots, and maybe a tomato slice if you’re lucky) while the waiter plays bland, overproduced rock songs at top volume just to fuck with you.

Speaking of music, here’s one of the numbers from Awara. It comes from the dream sequence: