Known as the “Showman of Indian Cinema”, filmmaker Raj Kapoor began his cinematic journey in the 1930s as a child actor. After having worked alongside many technicians, he founded RK Studios in 1948 at the age of 24 and it was with this that he began his story as a storyteller. Raj Kapoor adapted his cinema to the changing times, but it was his 1950s cinema that established him as a pioneer of Hindi cinema.
With the 1951 Awara movie, Raj Kapoor has made waves internationally. The main character of the film, played by Kapoor himself, is here labeled as an “awara”, but wants to be an honest and upright citizen. The problem is, there is no place for a good man in this dog-eating dog world. India was a fairly young country when Awara came out, and the film tells a story quite in tune with the times given the country’s economic situation. In an interview with India Today in 1976, Raj Kapoor spoke about the film and said: “Awara was a film of its time, as we were going through reform change in our own country. And the disparity between the rich and the poor, which was there then, and is there now, but we’re more aware of it now. “
The film brought Raj Kapoor’s cinema to an international audience with its participation in the Cannes Film Festival. It is with this film that he presents for the first time his version of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kapoor adapted the character to an Indian setting and made him a recurring character in several of his works in the 1950s.
His next director was the 1955 Shree 420 film, who once again starred him in the lead role with Nargis. With this film, Kapoor spoke about the post-independence economic crises where educated people could not find jobs. The film blatantly highlighted the government’s failure to create employment opportunities, which further divided the gap between the haves and have-nots. Despite its criticism of the government, the film celebrates patriotism in all its glory. The song “Mera Joota Hai Japani” is still associated with India in many parts of the world.
The success of Awara and Shree 420 made Raj Kapoor a living legend while he was still in his twenties. The themes of wealth disparity in society, unemployment, loss of confidence in government, disenchantment with our new independence – all reflected strongly in his work at the time. While the films were honest interpretations of the struggles of that era, they were made acceptable to the masses with popular music and a dreamy love story. Kapoor was very clear that he wanted to make popular mainstream cinema and his films indicated the same.
“I make films for the people, millions of people will see a film that I make. So I make so-called commercial films, blockbuster films that people pay to watch them over and over again. I am not an intellectual, not even a pseudo-intellectual, I do not claim to be. But I want to make films, using what little knowledge I have, that can appeal to a lot more people rather than a few, ”he said in the same 1976 interview.
Besides his two directors in the 1950s, he produced other important films of the time – Boot polish and Jagte Raho. Interestingly, these two films weren’t as mainstream and some of his other works, but spoke about similar themes. Boot Polish, who has followed a preteen sibling as they live on the streets and struggle to make ends meet, spoke about the system that ignores people living below the poverty line. Jagte Raho was another movie experience where Kapoor played the lead role of a man just trying to get water when mistaken for a thief by supposedly well-respected people in society. By spending time in their environment, he learns more about the hypocrisy of those who claim to be above others.
With each decade, Raj Kapoor’s cinema has tried to adapt to the present times. Looking back to 2021, perhaps it was his films from the 1950s that made him the “showman” he ultimately became. His understanding of the issues of that time was not perfect, but Kapoor was adept at concealing the ills of society and wrapping them in a sweet treat so that audiences could smile, shed a tear, and feel the magic of the movies.