Sunday, March 3, 2013


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:

(If the young Raj looks familiar, it's because he's played by Raj Kapoor's younger brother Shashi.)

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.

Update 14 April 2014: Awāra may also have borrowed some imagery from the Hollywood movie Down To Earth (1947); you can see the visual evidence by clicking on the title link.


  1. Hello, I appreciated the parallel between Awaara and Carousel: have you seen it documented elsewhere? Do we know whether RK might have seen the musical/play? It's true that Raj in Awaara only goes to Heaven-Hell in a dream whereas the great invention of the play (a little Capra-like) is to introduce the action in Heaven itself. But I agree there are enough signs to suggest influence.
    On the other hand, I don't worry as much as you at the slap scene; after all it can be looked upon as a classic moment of loving sacrifice, and I'm sure one could find classics where the scorned lover is submitting, almost masochistically, to his beloved tormentor.

    1. Yves, many thanks for your comment. I have no evidence that Raj Kapoor had seen Carousel before making Awāra, and I haven't heard of anyone else making the connection (although I didn't look, either). I do think the parallels are highly suggestive, though. Raj even wears a horizontally-striped pullover very much like the one visible in Miles White's costume designs for the original production of Carousel.

      As for the violence against women depicted in both Awāra and Carousel, as I wrote above I find it highly disturbing.

  2. Finally saw Awāra, and I loved it! For me, it was a glorious mash up of film genres - social melodrama, gangster noir, screwball comedy, courtroom drama, romance, and, of course, film musical. Raj Kapoor's character was, in himself, a quintessential mash up (his face kept oscillating for me between handsome leading men like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck on the one hand, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis rolled into one goofball on the other). Nargis is a smart and stunningly beautiful leading lady (kind of an Indian Ingrid Bergman). And the dream sequence was amazing (it reminded me of what Hitchcock was going for in Spellbound, but didn't quite pull off - this sequence in Awāra was completely mind blowing).

    About the slapping scene: agreed, this may be the most disturbing sequence in the film (the death of Jagga is pretty raw, too). But in a way, I think it was necessary (note: this interpretation is going to avoid Carousel parallels, because I've never seen that musical). Yes, Rita says, "You want to hit me? Go ahead" and this can be interpreted as her masochistic submission to his violence. But the scene doesn't end with this: the next bit of dialog comes from Raj, when he questions whether he is beating Rita or himself, should he continue. That is, Rita is not his victim, she is his mirror - Raj recognizes this and stops. This is important for me, because it is an intense (and disturbing!) expression of Raj's miserable condition and his wounded (masculine) identity. The very things that have made RIta a beautiful, successful, and rich person (as the judge's ward) are the same things that have been denied to Raj and have alienated him from society, an honest livelihood, and love. For him to have never lashed out at Rita would have been, in my view, emotionally false. The final scenes of the film, with Raj's acceptance of himself, claiming responsibility for his criminal actions, and viewing prison as a purifying penance, provide an emotionally powerful and romantically ambiguous ending.

    Anyway, this movie is so rich, I could go on forever... but won't. Many thanks for this post.

    1. M. Lapin, I agree that Raj's violence towards Rita, horrifying as it is, is consistent with his violent and conflicted character. But what I found even more disturbing about the slapping scene was Rita's willing acceptance of that violence, which we are, I think, intended to see as evidence of the depth of her love for Raj.

      This is the same sickening idea that finds expression in Carousel: if you love him enough, when he hits you it will feel like a kiss. That's why for me this scene mars Kapoor's film irretrievably.



  3. "Junglee": Doesn't Rita tease him with this several times throughout the film? Including before (and after) this scene? While her intention may be playful, clearly Raj doesn't always receive it that way - particularly when it produces this violent response in him against her. Because being "junglee" is, in fact, his existential situation. While most of the time he simply goes along with RIta's teasing, even participating in it, it shouldn't be surprising that from time to time something deep inside of him rebels against the term - for in comparison to Rita (superior class, educated, cultivated) he is "junglee" (criminal, streetwise, violent). But he wants to be loved by her as an equal. To be teased about that is injurious. In gendered terms, emasculated by Rita's superiority, Raj's violent response may be seen as a brutal effort to assert his "proper" patriarchal position. But it's really a disturbing expression of his fragile masculinity which he has, to this point, shored up through criminal gang activities (I think of the violent Freikrops soldiers in Klaus Theweleit's Male Male Fantasies).

    And seeing this against my nearly simultaneous viewing of English Vinglish, I am struck by parallels in terms of gender reversals and distance in time. In English Vinglish, Shashi is belittled for being a "ladoo" maker - making excellent ladoos, everyone agrees, but a source of teasing. Again, one can see it as playful teasing on her husband's and daughter's part, but since in fact her existential condition is one of being a housewife and ladoo makers (an existential identity she embraces, as she remakes all of the ruined ladoos). In both films, the deficiency is being "uneducated" (if she only knew English, she'd be something more than a ladoo maker). Obviously Shashi does not respond violently, but she does hide her English lessons from her family, lies about her whereabouts when slipping out for those lessons, momentarily responds to Laurent's flirtations, and publicly shames her husband and daughter at the wedding (because the speech is not really about the newlyweds, it's about her own family). In the end, she reaffirms her traditional role in the family.

    And it is here that I am struck by the sixty-year distance between Awāra and English VInglish. For in Awāra, made immediately following independence, the desire is one for liberation against traditionally restrictive social barriers and gender roles and toward greater opportunity through education. Sixty years later, Shashi's dilemma in a postcolonial and commercially globalized world is to pursue education as a way of reaffirming her traditional identity, while seeking greater "equality" in the family. I find both impulses fraught with ambiguities.

    P.S. Many apologies - it looks like I did, indeed, "go on forever..." although I promised not to. Testament, once again, to the richness of this film and your post.

    1. M. Lapin, your comparisons between Awara and English Vinglish are intriguing and provocative.

      I think you're right to suggest that shame is the core motivating force in both Raj and Shashi. But that shame explains why Shashi conceals her English lessons from her family (not only from her husband and children, but from her sister and her niece as well).

      As for momentarily responding to Laurent's flirtations, I'm not sure I read that rooftop scene in the same way. New York is new and overwhelming for Shashi; I think that she is a bit lost in her experience of the moment. I think, too, that Laurent has offered her emotional support, respect, praise and encouragement—things which have been in short supply from her family. So when she stumbles and he catches her, she is slow to realize that Laurent is taking advantage of the situation to silently express his feelings. But you can see the growing alarm in her eyes as the moment goes on, and before Laurent can attempt to kiss her she frees herself and runs away. Laurent's tragedy is that he misreads Shashi's signals as a reciprocation of his romantic feelings—in my view, she never feels, or even fantasizes that she feels, that way about him (even though we may want her to!).

      As for Shashi's wedding speech that "publicly shames her husband and daughter," I didn't see it in the same light. After all, no one there other than her husband and daughter has any idea what she's referring to when she talks about growing apart and the need to take steps to insure that permanent rifts in family relationships don't develop. Far from public shaming, it's a subtle and private message, and is largely directed (unjustly) at herself.

      But I agree that both films are very rich experiences that reward the kind of thoughtful consideration exemplified by your comments. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts!



    2. Dear Pessimisissimo,

      Many thanks for the well considered replies to my rather off the cuff interpretations. It's my method, you know, to run with an interpretive insight, only to be reeled back in by a more knowledgeable and skilled angler...

      I think you are probably correct that Shashi is not really interested in Laurent's flirtations. But it is precisely that "lost in her experience of the moment" that I want to emphasize in Shashi. Yes, her alarm to Laurent's advances quickly kick in, and she vigorously reasserts her traditional role. Laurent's tragedy is that he misreads the signals (here, I would emphasize the cross-cultural differences, rather than him "taking advantage" - which implies he correctly understands the signals and acts in his interest against hers anyway). But I'm not ready to concede that Shashi "never" feels or fantasizes; here, you and I are probably going to read her character somewhat differently.

      On the public shaming, I hold my ground. While no one else in the wedding party may discern that this speech is aimed at her husband and daughter, the fact is that Shashi delivers it in public. So even if it's a private message, she very deliberately chose a public forum to deliver it.

      And it may be that Shashi's speech is directed at herself as well. Whether that is unjustly or justly, though, is grist for a knotty discussion - one about Indian women between tradition and modernity. Again, I am struck by the gender contrasts between Rita (on the cusp of a modern India) and Shashi (reaffirming tradition within modernity). I'm thinking that perhaps later this summer, after the Criterion Collection releases restored versions of Satyajit Ray's The Big City (Mahanagar) (1963) and Charulata (1963), we can explore the gender politics of traditional and modern women in postcolonial India further.

      Your prolific and profligate admirer, M. Lapin