Awāra (The Tramp, 1951) is one of the most acclaimed Indian films of all time. Raj Kapoor's performance in the title role is listed as one of ten Great Performances in Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel's "All-TIME 100 Movies since the beginning of TIME" (Feb 12, 2005). Awāra is featured in Rachel Dwyer's 100 Bollywood Films (BFI, 2005); Subhash Jha writes that it "figures in the list of the three most influential films in Indian cinema" in his Essential Guide to Bollywood (Roli, 2005), although he doesn't name the other two; and Philip Lutgendorf writes that the film is "generally considered one of Kapoor's finest."
My feeling is a bit more ambivalent, mainly because of the parallels between Awāra and my least-favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel (1945). More about those parallels in a moment.
There's no question that Awāra is filled with excellent performances. This was the first film in which Kapoor appeared as The Tramp, a character based on Charlie Chaplin's beloved Little Tramp, although Kapoor's character Raj has a harder, more criminal edge. In fact, we first see Raj as a prisoner on trial, accused of attempted murder:
|Raj in the dock|
(The film's often striking images were composed by Kapoor—Awāra was the third film he directed—and cinematographer Radhu Karmakar.)
Raj's intended victim was Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor's father—a relationship that will soon have resonance in the world of the film). Judge Raghunath has definite ideas about the origins of crime:
|Judge Raghunath's genetic theory of crime|
Raj's advocate is a young woman, Rita (Nargis), raised as the ward of Judge Raghunath. Throughout the film Nargis is simply radiant:
|Rita for the defense|
Under Rita's questioning, Judge Raghunath soon begins to reveal his family history: more than two decades ago, his wife Leela (Leela Chitnis) was kidnapped by a notorious daku, Jagga (K.N. Singh). This is no random kidnapping; Jagga had been unjustly sent to prison by Judge Raghunath, who condemned him because of his father's and grandfather's criminality:
Jagga discovers that Leela is pregnant and returns her to her home. When Judge Raghunath learns of the pregnancy, though, he believes that Leela is carrying Jagga's child. In an echo of Ram's repudiation of Sita after her rescue from Raavana, Judge Raghunath throws his pregnant wife out into the street on a stormy night:
Leela gives birth to a son, Raj, and raises him in poverty. At school the young Raj and Rita are classmates, and she befriends him. But they are soon separated when Judge Raghunath intervenes with the schoolmaster to have Raj barred from the classroom:
Leela falls ill, and a desperate Raj tries to steal some bread to ease her hunger, but he is caught and sent to a wayward children's home. Throughout the move Kapoor and writers K. A. Abbas and V. P. Sathe show how assumptions about criminality become self-fulfilling prophecies.
When we next see Raj, he's an adult, and has spent the past decade in and out of prison for a variety of petty crimes committed as a member of Jagga's gang, which he celebrates in the song "Awara hoon" ("I'm a tramp"; music by Shankar-Jaikishan, lyrics by Shailendra, sung by Mukesh):
Raj meets Rita again when he steals her purse, and then pretends to recover it from the thief. Raj and Rita begin a flirtation that soon deepens into love when the childhood sweethearts recognize each other.
Raj is torn between the salvation offered by Rita and the inescapable hold of Jagga; and this is where the parallels to Carousel start to become apparent. In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a man who lives outside of social norms (Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker) falls in love with a woman who is firmly tied to the local community (Julie Jordan, a millworker). Billy is lured into crime by a man named Jigger; is the name Jagga in Awāra a coincidence? When Billy dies he is taken to a version of heaven (Up There), but then plunges into a fiery hell before he can return to Earth; Raj similarly has a vision of heaven and hell in the famous dream sequence (the songs are "Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni" and "Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi," sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey):
One day at the beach, Rita playfully calls Raj a "junglee"—savage—and he flies into a rage. He twists her arm, chokes her, and then starts hitting her:
He slaps her three times hard across her face, and then shoves her to the ground. The violence of this scene is shocking. What makes it even worse is Rita's response:
This is where the parallels to Carousel become inescapable. In anger and frustration at his ostracism by the townspeople, Billy hits Julie, but she stays with him. When, later in the play, Billy strikes his daughter Louise, she notoriously asks her mother if a hard slap can feel like a kiss, and Julie agrees. Awāra's great music (the playback singers also include Mohd. Rafi and Shamshad Begum), gorgeous black-and-white images, and the fiercely committed performances of its cast can't outweigh for me the sickening image of Rita offering her face to Raj for a slap as though for a kiss.