Raj Kapoor was the son of the first great Indian film maker, Prithvi Raj Kapoor. He grew up surrounded by film, back when India was still a British colony. As soon as he came of age, he began making movies. The first film was a terrible, all-speaking melodrama, Aan. He made a couple of other cheap Hollywood ripoffs in the same vein, until he finally came upon the style that was to make him famous - the melodramatic musical. It's safe to say that if Raj Kapoor didn't invent the Bollywood musical spectacular, he was certainly it's most adept practicioner, and made movies that are still watched and beloved by literally hundreds of millions of people all over the world. This, despite the fact that Raj Kapoor is almost totally unknown in the west.
The film that made him famous was Shree 420, translated into various languages as The Tramp (China), The Con Man (Russia), The Wanderer (Hebrew), and The Nomad, (Arabic). The actual movie, made in the late 40's is named after the Indian criminal code prohibiting fraud.
On the surface, the plot of the movie is simple: a young beggar leaves the orphanage where he grew up to come to Bombay, the metropolis. He falls in love with a saintly woman, and they decide to make a life together. But he is tempted by the big money of the con man jet set, and finally falls into the wrong crowd, only to be redeemed by his own inner goodness and spirituality, as well as the love of the woman who adores him.
Raj Kapoor wrote the film, directed, and produced it. The other main role in the film was played by the incomparable Nargis, one of the most beautiful women in India, and the music was written by Shankar Jakishan, who went on to become the most famous early writers of Indian Film Music. The film made the fortune of RK Studios, Kapoor's nascent company, and literally attracted crowds of hundreds of millions of people, jostling for entrance into the country's movie theatres, as well as winning the Lenin Prize for outstanding achievment in the arts. For years, the film filled cinemas in practically every country in the world outside of Western Europe and America. For a short time, Shree 420 was in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most seen film in the world.
The film eschews psychological or plot development in favor of a mythology which is almost instantly available to every person in every nation of the world who has the experience of trying to make their way in the big city. There is no attempt to shade anyone's character - the principal villain, Seth Sananchand, makes his money by selling fake stock certificates and finally develops a scheme to steal billions of dollars from the city's poor, starving homeless denizens, by offering them all houses for a few thousand dollars each, then fleeing to London with the money. The good characters are portrayed as saintly. The only character who changes throughout the film the is the character played by Kapoor himself, and there isn't any subtlety in this portrayal either - first he's good, (actually, he plays a Little Tramp character almost indistinguishable from Charlie Chaplin's tramp in Modern Times) - then he's a crook, then he's redeemed. This sounds more like propanganda than a modern movie and in a sense it is - it's the most widely beloved communist propaganda film ever made.
The success of the film depends on it's simplicity - basically, the emotion of the film is allowed to reach a fever pitch that is rarely seen in a Hollywood movie. Kapoor's intention is very clear: he's out to make you sympathize with his character, feel that part of your own soul is compromised when Kapoor becomes a thief, and feel redeemed yourself when Kapoor turns the criminals into the police at the end of the film. The way this is done is through brilliant writing - the film is an almost oxymoronic "brilliant melodrama" - and through song and dance. Everyone sings and everyone dances. The homeless people dance in the streets of Bombay until they are chased away by the police, called by the wealthy, unable to sleep in their palaces. The wealthy criminals sing and dance in their jeweled nighclubs overlooking Bombay's harbor. Nargis sings when she falls in love with Kapoor, when she is betrayed by Kapoor, and when she regains Kapoor. The homeless people sing at the end of the film when praising Kapoor for his part in the scheme (not knowing it's an attempt to screw them out of money.). In a sense, the film is more of an opera than a real film, more of a spectacle than a plotline.
A film like this needs to be seen to be understood, relying, as it does, heavily on the arts of musical composition, cinematography and choreography. (The homeless and criminals not only sing, they dance. And not only do they dance, they dance in a mixture of Jerome Robbins Broadway Spectacular, Ballet, and Traditional Indian Dancing. And this was in the 50's!) Unfortunately, no major distributor has yet seen fit to rerelease Kapoor's films to the public. However, if you live in a city with an Indian diaspora population of any size, all have video stores, and most will carry Shree 420 with subtitles. I can confirm through personal conversations that the main song - a riddle song, called "Ichikidana" - is known to almost every 40-60 year old in China, India, Israel, The Arab Middle East and the former communist world. Finally, the opening title song - "My shoes are Japanese, my pants are English, my hat is Russian, but my heart is Indian" - is also found in the opening paragraph of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. It's the song the angel Gabriel sings when he first descends to earth.
The second major film released by Kapoor briefly topped Shree 420 as the most widely viewed film on earth. It was made in the 50's and was the epitome of the Bollywood musical. Most directors in Bollywood when asked about this film, will admit that the odds are low that anything of this quality will ever be made in India again. It uses the same style as Shree 420 - constant singing, dancing, emotional acting and melodrama - but manages to combine character development and plot. Essentially, Awara (The Hooligan), is a film about a judge who believes that a person's ancestors hold the key to his behavior - that is, the son of a criminal is bound to be a criminal himself. He sentences a young man unjustly, who escapes and becomes a major bandit. This bandit revenges himself on the judge by kidnapping his wife - when he realizes she is one month pregnant, he rapes her. As her pregnancy becomes clearer, the judge, unable to deal with his jealousy, kicks her out of the house, claiming the baby is probably the result of the rape. The child, of course, grows up to be a thief, tutored in criminality by the very same bandit who has raped his mother...
What nobody realized at the time, was that Kapoor was creating a character whose behavior would be cited in Thieves' Codes as far apart as Russia (Shukshin mentions Kapoor in Roseberry Red), and China (Where one of the thieves in Lao Gai, the famous prison memoir, is accused of not having a moral code, and says, "Of course I do. The code of Raj Kapoor, from Awara.") The code is simple: utter hatred of the authorities, total independence, an indifference to one's material situation, and a belief in moral justice in which those in authority are evil for exercising their authority, and bandits, robbers and such like are exemplary attitudes of morality. Sort of "only the unfair are fair in an unfair world". Even the title song - another song everyone between 40 and 60 in the third world will know - reflects this attitude:
I am a hooligan
I live under the sky and the stars are my roof
I owe no one anything, and no one owes anything to me
I love no one, and no one loves me
The actual details of the plot are lost in the fierce, imaginative portrayal of the brutal, honest bandit, a type of character created by Kapoor and which was to become much more famous worldwide than it's creator. In an early scene in the film, the young child who is to become the Hooligan is living in a shack with his dying mother. She, in her delirium, tells him that there is some food by the door. Of course, there is no food. He, in order to assuage her worries that he will starve, pretends to eat. At this point, she asks him to please save her the last bite. (This type of vicious situation is typical of a Kapoor melodrama). Stunned, he goes out to do what his surrogate father, the bandit who raped his mother, has been advising him to do - he goes to the street to steal some bread. Caught, his cries for mercy are in vain, and the next scene shows him in prison for youthful offenders, which he has clearly just been thrown into, wearing the same clothes, without even a trial. He is on a line where each prisoner is given bread. Aware of the irony of this situation he breaks out into bitter laughter - and the scene changes as the same young man, laughing the same bitter laughter, is let out of prison ten years later. He will find his mother dead and the bandit waiting for him...
Kapoor made many other films since then, and his two sons - Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor actually made films in the west. (Shashi, dipped a little in quality and is most well known for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, a UK production). RK Studios is long gone. But many of his films - and especially Awara and Shree 420 - remain massive testimonies to the ability of a combination of story, acting pathos, music, and dance, to create an overwhelming emotion. Go to your local Indian grocery and ask them if they have either of these films with subtitles. It's not something you can find in your local video store, but there are few films more worth seeing.