Raj Kapoor, The Common Man Who Knew Too Much
On Raj Kapoor’s birth anniversary, revisiting the showman’s iconic journey in front of the camera and behind it.
When Kidar Sharma, the man responsible for launching the careers of many stars, was shooting Vish Kanya, he faced a strange problem. He had hired a young lad as the clapper boy, because the boy’s father was a close friend of his. But every time the boy was supposed to clap, he would comb his hair, pose for the frame and then give the clap!
Despite exasperated eyes all over, the boy would do it every time. And then one fine day, Sharma needed a close-up shot as the sun was setting. He requested the boy with folded hands not to continue his charade, not at least this time as it would mean coming back to the spot braving the distance of 65-80 kilometres the next day. The boy agreed, but performed the same farce, but this time, the hero’s beard got caught in the clapper board, and the shot was gone. Sharma, fuming by then, called him and in front of the entire unit, slapped him hard. The boy kept quiet, but that night, Sharma felt really terrible, and a new realisation dawned upon him. The boy wanted to be in front of the camera, not behind it!
Sharma chose the young boy as the hero in his next, Neel Kamal, opposite Madhubala, another tenderfoot. That boy was Ranbir Raj Kapoor, popularly known to us as Raj Kapoor.
Kapoor went on to become a part of Hindi cinema’s holy trinity along with Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, delivering box office hits and creating a mass hysteria. But he stands apart from the other two, because his career as an actor also kickstarted his passion for directing simultaneously, and he built a formidable career as an actor-director.
Like his peers, Kapoor too blooming in the new light of the country’s independence thought of his countrymen as the noble souls gathering themselves up from the ruins of colonial rule. His initial films like Awara and Shree 420 featured a perennial outsider coming to terms with hard times, seeking justice in an unjust world, but his narratives always carried a sense of optimism in them. His countrymen lapped him up, but surprisingly, he found a wide audience in a far reaching nation, becoming a symbol of hope for the masses in the war-ravaged Soviet Union.
Kapoor, who made himself the Indian version of Charlie Chaplin’s endearing tramp, was a far better director than an actor. While Dilip Kumar went for method acting, Kapoor settled for exaggerated mannerisms and contortions of his face, exploring the joys and sorrows of the common man with uncommon rendition of the old world theatrical tradition. Perhaps he too realised it deep down, and in his latter films, decided to direct others in front of the camera.
In totality, his cinema was built on the idea that he didn’t want sermons delivered in his films, and preferred to serve the bitter pill of social inequality with hummable songs and dance, making it seem like the little door to escapism. Unlike the comrades of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), he preferred emotional frankness over intellectual honesty.
He had a deep understanding of the masses, and he knew what would bring them to theatres. He used Mukesh’s voice over stalwarts like Rafi because Mukesh was easier to hum, easier to identify as the common man’s voice. He put his heroines in diaphanous whites under waterfalls which might seem like a sensational ploy, but worked as a great pull for viewers, and Kapoor succeeded in making hit, women oriented films with a social insight. Above all, his sense of music remains one of the cornerstones of Hindi cinema history.
In retrospect, his directorial achievements easily outweigh his acting accomplishments. But in remembrance, Raj Kapoor remains the common man, the tramp, and the joker of Hindi cinema. Much before globalisation made us the amalgamation of borderless elements, his music spoke about it. Legendary writer Mahasweta Devi had people in tears at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006 when she used Kapoor’s song in her passionate inaugural speech.
Mera joota hai Japani (My shoes are Japanese)
Ye patloon Inglistani (These trousers are English)
Sar pe lal topi Roosi (The red cap on my head is Russian)
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani (But still, however, my heart is Indian)
(The legendary actor Raj Kapoor left behind a body of work that continues to inspire filmmakers. This article is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark his birth anniversary and revisit the showman’s iconic journey in front of the camera and behind it.)
(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)
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