Aristotle once said that the aim of art is to represent, not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. This holds true for the artistic genius of Indian cinema titan Raj Kapoor. From exploring the angst of the common man to tracing aesthetics in the nubile form, the actor-director played a key role in the evolution of commercial Indian cinema.

Born into a prestigious lineage of acting, Raj Kapoor first appeared in the movie “Inquilab” (Revolution) in 1935 – he was only eleven. With an easy charm and dashing looks, he had the makings of a true romantic hero, but the actor-director had something else on his mind. At the age of 24, Raj Kapoor decided to set up his own production house – R K Studios, thus, beginning his lifelong love affair with the camera.

Some say the dynamo was born ahead of his time – a true visionary who realized early on in his film career that Indian motion pictures could only be accepted by audiences all over the world through the accurate depiction of society.

The actor gained worldwide recognition with his portrayal of a tramp in the movie “Awara” and in “Shree 420” as a petty thief. Inspired by another movie genius, Charlie Chaplin, Raj’s unassuming heroes evoked a certain kind of empathy from the audience. Unlike the many portrayals in his time, Raj Kapoor’s heroes were simple, unambitious, and faulty but could raise themselves to achieve the extraordinary. It was something viewers could relate to, had a connection with and, most of all, such type of character depiction gave them hope.

Raj’s audience belong to a time of great socio-economic upheaval with remnants of the two world wars felt within the very fibres of society. Movies were being made to entertain people with epic romances and sweeping fairy tales. In such a climate, Raj Kapoor broke all traditional norms. His movies became synonymous with ideals thought to be unconventional at that time. His leading ladies, particularly Nargis, epitomised flamboyantly strong-willed heroines. His villains were not people with bad characters, but issues and taboos afflicting the society. Indian social order was undergoing a massive transition spearheaded by visionary leaders Gandhi and Nehru. It was Raj’s movie like “Jaagte Raho” (Remain Awake) and “Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai” (The Country where Ganges Flows) that contributed in bringing about a change in Indian cinema as well as arousing feelings of nationalism.

Forever the non-conformist, his movies aroused interest as well as protestations from the then-conservative India.

Although the movie “Jaagte Raho” gained recognition outside India, it didn’t do well at the box office. Another movie, “Mera Naam Hai Joker” (My Name is Joker), met with the same negative response, and it has been widely believed that it was these disappointments that led to a shift in his movie-making. The audience’s response made the artist divert his attention to the pursuit and exploration of love with all its sensuality.

Forever the non-conformist, his movies aroused interest as well as protestations from the then-conservative India. His heroines became sensual objects and the storyline touched sensitive subjects of rape, seduction and the loss of innocence. Talking about the furore over the explicit nature of his movies, Raj Kapoor is quoted in one of his biographies as saying, “We are shocked to see nudity, we need to get mature. I have always respected women but don’t understand why I am accused of exploiting them. Fellini’s nude woman is considered art, but when I show a woman’s beauty onscreen, then it is called exploitation.”

Raj Kapoor infused the Indian cinema with a life and spirit of eternal hope. What sets him apart from other directorial geniuses is that he brought a new set of visionary ideals in Indian commercial cinema – a notion unheard of during his time. He was and forever will be remembered as the “Showman”.


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