The Vagabond

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Raj Kapoor

With Kapoor, Nargis, and Prithviraj Kapoor.

Mr. 420

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Raj Kapoor

With Kapoor, Nargis, Nadira, and Nemo.

By Sunil Malapati

When Fire, the first film directed by Raj Kapoor, premiered in 1948, Indian popular cinema was on the verge of a golden age. Directly influenced by the nautanki tradition, which combined dance and melodrama, it produced romances, family stories, historical dramas, and mythology. From the moment sound was introduced, Indian films incorporated songs; singing stars were in such high demand that many nonsinging actors and actresses had to have their songs dubbed by other people. The films’ melodrama may seem almost lurid to Westerners, but because the movies were often aimed at common people, the stories were heavily symbolic and the dialogue and acting excessively dramatic.

Kapoor (1924-1988), for many years one of the most popular film stars in India, embraced the conventions of popular cinema, though he adapted them to his own needs. His movies were rich in music and melodrama yet enhanced by their social content and personal subtext. He selected the songs and background music himself, at times composing his own tunes. The mannered dialogue of his melodrama was delivered at a less feverish pitch than in most Indian movies, its intensity further modulated by lighting, composition, and background music. He was one of the first Indian directors to exploit the techniques of filmmaking to add layers of meaning to the story. He occupies a unique position in the annals of Indian cinema: as a producer-director-actor he created a distinct screen persona and established a highly personal style in which his offscreen relationships (romantic and otherwise) often spilled over into his films.

Like Hitchcock, whose popular thrillers often reflected personal obsession, Kapoor was a consummate showman who controlled every aspect of his films, from the script to the cast, camera work, music, editing, and marketing. With his longtime cinematographer Radhu Karmakar he planned the complete sequence of shots before he began shooting (though he never used storyboards). And like Hitchcock, he developed strong relationships with his leading ladies that often informed his movies; the single greatest influence on his career was the actress Nargis, the “woman in white” who became his mistress and his muse.

Yet Kapoor is most often compared to Chaplin: in his most famous movies, The Vagabond (1951) and Mr. 420 (1955), he assumes the persona of a tramp. While Kapoor was certainly inspired by Chaplin, a boyhood hero, his Tramp is a conscious disguise. Raj, the hero of The Vagabond, uses it to further his career as a pickpocket and a thief, while the Raj in Mr. 420 is a jobless graduate who comes to Bombay to make his fortune, finds that his degree might be a liability, and disguises himself as the Tramp to endear himself to the homeless people he befriends. Later he exchanges the disguise for that of a prince in order to defraud the rich (the name Raj, “king” in Hindi, fits both disguises equally well). Indeed, one of the central images of Mr. 420 is a pair of masks. Kapoor would use the Tramp as an autonomous character in later movies like Stay Awake! (1956) and The Country Where the River Ganges Flows (1960), and he acknowledged the duality of his screen identity in the autobiographical My Name Is Joker (1970).

In real life as in his films, Kapoor needed his Tramp character to connect with the common man: the scion of a prestigious family and the product of boarding schools, he was by all accounts urbane and westernized (a term Indians typically use to refer to British influence). In his first two movies, Fire and Rain (1949), he plays a cultured young man. In The Vagabond he plays the son of a feudal lord who’s brought up in poverty; unaware of his lineage, he encounters constant discrimination, and under the influence of his father’s nemesis he becomes a thief. When K.A. Abbas and V.P. Sathe offered Kapoor the screenplay, they did so on the condition that his father, the celebrated actor Prithviraj Kapoor, play the lord. Casting his own father would strengthen the movie’s central argument, that people become criminals because of social circumstances rather than blood, but the autobiographical subtext was obvious.

Fathers are a rarity in Kapoor’s movies: even in The Vagabond the father is absent from his son’s life, and father figures like Jagga the dacoit (outlaw) in The Vagabond and Seth Dharmachand in Mr. 420 are inherently untrustworthy. Kapoor was not close to his father, who had a busy career as a stage and screen actor, and when Raj launched his own acting career he made his way completely independent of his father. So the father-son dynamic in The Vagabond is inherently interesting. The father, Judge Raghunath, represents feudal authority–Raghunath is another name for Lord Rama, the god usually invoked to preserve the caste system. Judge Raghunath drives his pregnant wife Leela out of his house just as Lord Rama banished his pregnant wife Sita. Screenwriters Abbas and Sathe, both socialist activists and agnostics, relished the chance to take potshots at a religious symbol, and while Raj Kapoor was deeply religious, he preserved the cultural subtext of their script.

The composition of the film’s first courtroom scene establishes the conflict between father and son: the judge is outside the prisoner’s cage, framed magisterially, while the son appears through the wire mesh, on the opposite side of the law. Various details link the father to the feudal system (the clock is a recurrent symbol), yet he’s humanized by his loving relationship with his wife and his progressive views shown by his marrying a widow. Kapoor also permits a certain amount of sensuality in their marriage when the upper part of the wife’s sari slips down. The same thing happens in Raj’s love scenes, subtly establishing the parallel between father and son.

The son’s love interest, Rita (Nargis), is the judge’s adopted daughter, and as Gayatri Chatterji notes in her seminal book Awaara, Kapoor adds several small directorial touches to indicate the father’s incestuous feelings, which were just as taboo in Indian as in American movies. Consider the dinner scene in which Rita first informs the judge about Raj. When she reports that Raj joked about being a thief, the judge replies, “Maybe he was not lying. Maybe he wants to steal a precious thing from this house.” He looks at Rita with slight alarm, the shot held a fraction longer than necessary. After demonizing the judge as a patriarch and a feudal figure, Kapoor deliberately denies him any sort of redemption, even after he expresses remorse: the last shot to include the judge shows Raj at a distance, flanked by his father’s outstretched hands. Yet in the final scene between Raj and Rita, the son talks of becoming a judge himself.

When Kapoor approached Nargis to appear in Fire she was already a movie star, and the awe in which he held her is apparent from his handling of her as a director. By the time he made Rain he was more assured in his relationship with her–both professional and personal. Their offscreen passion comes across in the film, during both the onset of the characters’ romance, when Kapoor’s movements barely contain the violent emotion beneath the surface, and later when they are more quiet and intimate. In both The Vagabond and Mr. 420, Nargis plays the hero’s conscience and redeemer; Rita, a lawyer, fights for him in The Vagabond, and as the schoolteacher in Mr. 420 she keeps him on the straight path. Long after they split personally and professionally, Kapoor said that his wife, Krishna, was the mother of his children and that Nargis was the mother of his movies.

Like Kapoor, Nargis came from a film background–her mother, Jaddanbai, was India’s first female music director–but she lacked Kapoor’s refinement. Between Rain and The Vagabond she became more sophisticated under his tutelage. Rita is a complex role that taps into Nargis’s Indian heritage as well as her westernized image. Her name is Western, and her function is to create erotic tension; at one point she appears in a swimsuit, a daring move for an Indian actress in that era. Yet the character’s childhood name is Reetu, and the image that tweaks Raj’s conscience in the film is not the adult woman but a photo of her as a girl.

In Mr. 420 the madonna and the whore are two different characters: Nargis plays a righteous schoolteacher, Vidya (another name for the goddess of knowledge), while Nadira is the cabaret dancer Maya (or illusion), who leads Raj down the path of dishonesty toward wealth. In The Vagabond, Rita accepts Raj unconditionally, but Vidya will accept him only when he’s honest. In the four years that passed between the two projects Nargis had grown in her stature as an actress and as a creative colleague of Kapoor, and her on-screen role reflected that growth. (At the same time Lata Mangeshkar, who provided Nargis’s singing voice in Rain, The Vagabond, and Mr. 420, had developed a distinct vocal style.)

Kapoor’s artistic collaboration with Nargis peaked with Mr. 420, but cracks were developing in their personal relationship. Nargis was no longer content to be Kapoor’s mistress, and Stay Awake! would be their last film together. Their duet “We Are in Love, We Know It Is Passion” from Mr. 420 remains an indelible moment in their collaboration. When Nargis sings “We won’t be there, but our images will endure,” she points to three small children, who in real life were Kapoor’s. It’s a complex and poignant gesture, considering the circumstances.

In Mr. 420 the Tramp sings “My shoes are Japanese / My pants are English / The red cap on my head is Russian / But my heart is still Indian.” The lyric, written by the street poet Shailendra, spoke to a nation still reveling in its independence, yet it also speaks to Kapoor’s distinguished career, which spanned four decades. His movies had a tremendous impact on Indian cinema: with their music and star power they provided an Eastern alternative to the Hollywood dream machine, and their evocative themes of collectivism and antifeudalism made them wildly popular in many third-world and socialist countries. By using the popular cinema to support his individual vision, Kapoor successfully bridged the gap between art and commerce, a real achievement in any culture.