A Realist with a Heart: Remembering Raj Kapoor

By Mohammad Taqi

 چناں قحط سالے شد اندر دمشق

کہ یاراں فراموش کردند عشق

( سعدی شیرازی )

Saadi of Shiraz wrote with great dismay that “the famine in Damascus is so bad that friends have forgotten how to love”.

 Something much worse has befallen our city, Peshawar. It is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about music, art, films or love when the terror reigns supreme and war has ravished the city and its citizens alike.

But talking to the Peshawarites on a regular basis and discovering them to be extraordinarily upbeat and subdued simultaneously, keeps reminding one of a line from a famous song:

زخموں سے بھرا سینہ ہے مرا ، ہنستی ہے مگر یہ مست نظر

(While my heart bleeds, I still have a smile in my carefree eyes).

This song and the unusual admixture of humor and pathos in the persona of the Awara – the Vagabond or tramp – performing it, were to become a trademark of Raj Kapoor – the Awara from Peshawar.

Raj Kapoor was born in the mohallah Dhaki Munawar Shah, inside the walled city of Peshawar, on December 14, 1924, to Prithviraj Kapoor in a house owned by his father D. Bashisharnath ji.

That house still stands in its original condition in Ander Shehr, Peshawar but its illustrious inhabitants, Raj Kapoor and Prithviraj ji had moved to Bombay long ago. Back then, fruit, flowers and film stars – not bad news – were the Peshawar’s export to the world.

I don’t intend to dabble into the genre of film journalism where the titans like Babu Rao Patel, Clare Mendonca and Bunny Reuben in India to I A Rehman and Asad Jaffery in Pakistan had ruled the roost.

This is only to remember a neighbor that I only saw on the screen but whose art has transcended time, frontiers, cultures and religions.

Known as Comrade Awara (Brodgaya in Russian) in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Avare in Turkey and Aghai Awara in Iran, RK contributed to the world of light and shadows a social realism with its mass appeal anchored in the secular ethos.

In its 2005 compilation of the 100 best films of all times, the Time magazine called Raj Kapoor, popularly known as RK saab: ” more than the primal star of Indian cinema. To most of the planet, Raj Kapoor was India in all its vitality, humanity and poignancy”.

The 1940s were a time of great turmoil for the world and India in particular. The Indian cinema of the era had discovered and was consolidating the “formula” for box-office success – a powerful concoction of fantastic storytelling, song and dance.

During this upheaval in the nation and its cinema, the actor-director Raj Kapoor was coming of age. An arch-romantic himself, he was acutely aware of the social realities of the post-WWII, pre and post-independence India. It simply wasn’t possible for him to ignore the impact of the war, colonization and primordial globalization on the Indian society.

Nevertheless, he was averse to stuff and choke the audiences with messages of overt ‘proletariat social realism’. A people who were living war, communalism and unemployment need not be given overdose of the same in film showings three times a day plus a Sunday matinee.

Talking about his magnum opus, the 1951 Awara, RK saab said: “Awara came at a time, when films were of totally different nature. We still had the remnants of British imperial dominance and we wanted a new social order. I tried to create a balance between entertainment and what I wanted to say to the people. Awara had everything ……… With a song on his lips and a flower he went through all the ordeals that socio-economic disruptions could bring about. The change that the people wanted, they saw in the spirit of the young man who was the Vagabond, the Awara”.

The plebeian secularism of Raj Kapoor preceded by decades, the so-called parallel cinema – a decadent and defeatist leftist trend in the Indian films. The latter never made it out of the drawing rooms and the art-house cinemas.

Many of the issues taken up by Raj Kapoor maintain their robust resonance even today. A social commentator Arun Shrivastava recently pointed out an interesting subplot in the 1959 movie Anari (the Simpleton), starring RK and directed by Hirishkesh Mukherji. The character Ramnath and his corporate cohorts discover that a batch of their patented flu remedy is contaminated with poison but to continue profiting from an unusual flu pandemic that year, they suppress the information leading to the death of Mrs. D’Sa – the lead character RK’s landlady.

Today, this blurring of the line between corporate responsibility and criminal profiteering is reflected even more when the most recent medical publications have pointed out that a certain medication purported to be “the cure” for the Swine Flu is not effective at all or when drugs doing multi-billion dollar business are removed from the market because the parent companies suppressed the information on their bad or lethal outcomes.

In the 1955 film, Shree 420 (a play on the section 420 of Indian Penal Code dealing with fraud), RK – the Mr. 420 runs a variant of the fraudulent investment scheme -Ponzi or Golden Pyramid where he cons his former co-inhabitants of the Bombay slums, into investing their life savings into a housing scam he is running. The mechanics and the target population of the scam may be different but the similarities with the Ponzi scheme run by a former stock-exchange chairman Bernie Madoff are uncanny.

The arch-romantic Raj Kapoor however found in love – at least insofar as his films are concerned – an equalizer to the social injustices. Love and lovers armed with the most enchanting melodies became RK saab’s army of the revolutionary resistance.

His leading ladies symbolized the forces of virtue, as reflected e.g. by Nargis playing Vidya (knowledge) in Shree 420, and the villains epitomized the conglomerate of God, gold and guns by Seth Dharmanand Sonachand (Dharama: religion or God and Sona: gold). It is the dialectical tussle between these two opposing camps and a triumph of the former that eventually deliver the Tramp from his intellectual conundrum and the protagonist comes out reformed and on the side of virtue.

Saadi said in another poem “as a tree bears fruit, it bows with humility”. So did Raj Kapoor. He described himself as the conductor of an orchestra that was the RK Films and produced melody after melody. Known as the Lion of Chembur, he did not apportion himself the lion’s share of his triumphs though. He honored and acknowledged, on a personal and professional level, his team and their greatness. Whether it was the trade-unionist poet Shailindra, romanticist Hasrat of Jaipur, musicians Shankar and Jaikishan or his singing “soul” Mukesh, he held them dear and in high esteem.

He worshiped love and truth and concluded in his “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram”, that the God we are searching for is nothing but these two intertwined and beautiful realities. Raj Kapoor’s magic formula for success was simple and his ” Jagte Raho “ (Stay Awake -1956) captures it the best – one doesn’t have to look farther than oneself to find corruption. The film’s concluding song may come across as a devotional hymn but it is the beginning of RK’s message. A message to the thirsty and tormented mankind: “Jago Mohan piyaray”  – a call to all humanity to awaken from a slumber of ignorance, into a new age.

Like its son Raj Kapoor – the unnamed peasant of Jagte Raho – may the tormented Peshawar rediscover life and love.

– Photo credits: Raj Kapoor’s house in Peshawar by veteran photojournalist Riaz Anjum.

Raj Kapoor as the ‘Pathan’ in Prithvi Theaters play, from Bunny Reuben’s “The Fabulous Showman” –

Author was born and raised in Dhaki Munawar Shah, Peshawar. He teaches and practices medicine at the University of Florida and can be reached at mazdaki@me.com

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