Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Raj Kapoor’s Awara swings between feminism and romanticising intimate-partner violence

When you love a film, it is tempting to gloss over its failings. When you love an artist, it is tempting to pretend that they are perfect. To do so is dangerous and untruthful though. Raj Kapoor and Awara were wonderful, but they were also not.

Anna MM Vetticad November 25, 2020 13:04:20 IST
Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Raj Kapoor’s Awara swings between feminism and romanticising intimate-partner violence

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara

(Editor’s Note: This is Part 11 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)

In the intolerant atmosphere pervading India today, it is unlikely that Raj Kapoor’s Awara (Vagabond) would be cleared if it were to come up for consideration before censors in 2020. This 1951 Hindi film makes open references to the Ramayan, with undisguised criticism of Ram’s decision to put Sita through an agni pariksha (trial by fire) to prove her chastity and later exile her in response to gossip about her pregnancy – threats, lawsuits and physical attacks have become commonplace in this country for far less. 

Ironically and tragically, the feminist line taken by the protagonist runs parallel to a romanticised depiction of the violence he inflicts on his woman partner. This troubling co-existence of extreme liberalism and illiberalism in the same script is why I am including Awara in this series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me. 

I first watched Awara on Doordarshan as a pre-teen in the 1980s. When Raj (played by Raj Kapoor) struck Rita (Nargis) in this classic, even as a child I instinctively felt it was not okay. It was a confusing experience though because I found so much else to love in this otherwise stunning film, and because I knew Awara was a critically acclaimed blockbuster that had stood the test of time since my mother’s and father’s youth. In this context I cannot, therefore, stress enough the importance of parents constantly addressing serious social issues at home. Because in the decades since I saw Awara, I have often wondered if at such a young age I would have thought twice about the hero’s objectionable actions in those visually gorgeous scenes, if Mum had not already discussed domestic violence with us by then. 

At its core, Awara is a nature-versus-nurture debate. Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor) is a stiff-necked, self-righteous man who believes that good people beget good children and that the children of criminals will inevitably grow up to be criminals. He goes so far as to convict a man called Jagga (KN Singh) for rape on flimsy grounds because his father and grandfather were outlaws. 

As revenge, one day Jagga abducts Raghunath’s wife, Leela (Leela Chitnis), with the intention of raping her. On discovering that she is pregnant though, he lets her off with a different vendetta in mind. When Raghunath realises Leela is expecting a baby, he predictably suspects that Jagga is the father of the child, and when tongues start wagging, he throws her out of his house. 

A penniless Leela struggles to raise her son Raj (the younger version played by Shashi Kapoor) who soon turns to crime under Jagga’s influence. Through the course of the narrative, Raj befriends a wealthy classmate called Rita, they are separated in their childhood and renew their relationship as adults. Rita is the one person in Raj’s life other than his mother who is consistently kind to him and stands by him. Ultimately, the path that Raj walks tests Raghunath’s conviction regarding genetic predisposition towards virtue and vice.

Awara, written by KA Abbas and VP Sathe, was Raj Kapoor’s third film as a producer and director. By the time he made it he was already a successful actor. In Awara though, audiences were introduced to his screen persona of The Tramp, drawing on the English silent-era icon Charlie Chaplin’s signature character. This tremendously successful avatar was further developed in Shree 420, Jagte Raho, Jish Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai and Mera Naam Joker

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Raj Kapoors Awara swings between feminism and romanticising intimatepartner violence

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Awara

Flamboyant, extravagant and entertaining as Raj’s films were, he always pivoted them around his social concerns. This is a trait he shared with his illustrious father, Prithviraj. According to The Prithviwallahs, a book Shashi Kapoor co-authored with journalist Deepa Gahlot, Prithviraj wanted his theatre companyto do plays that were socially relevant and close to reality.” In The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, journalist Madhu Jain describes one such production: Ahooti, staged in 1949, that has a strong link to Awara. “Set against the backdrop of the Partition riots, this tragic play has the fate of an abducted young Hindu girl as its theme,” Jain writes. “Rescued from her kidnappers by a Muslim, she is rejected by the family of the man she is engaged to... There are obvious echoes of Sita’s story in the Ramayana here... Interestingly, Raj Kapoor picks up a similar thread in his film Awara.”

When Raghunath abandons Leela in Awara, as she wanders the streets and gives birth to her baby on a roadside in torrential rain, playing in the background is Shankar-Jaikishan’s song with lyricist Shailendra mincing no words: “Pativrata Sitamai ko tuney diya banvaas / Kyun na phata dharti ka kaleja? / Kyun na phata aakash? / Julam sahey bhaari, Janakdulaari / Julam sahey bhaari, Janakdulaari. / Janakdulaari, Ram ki pyaari. / Phirey maari maari, Janakdulaari.” (You banished Mother Sita who is faithful to her husband. / Why is the Earth not torn asunder? / Why is the sky not ripped through? / The beloved daughter of Janak, bears such injustice. / The daughter of Janak, beloved of Ram. / The daughter of Janak, wanders helplessly around.) 

The “tuney” (you) in the opening line is unapologetically accusatory. Those well-versed with Indian mythology would catch the multiple richly layered references here, including the fact that Sita is said to be a daughter of the Earth who was adopted by King Janak; years after her banishment, when Ram finally accepts her sons, she asks the Earth to swallow her, which it does. Towards the end of Awara, even after Judge Raghunath accepts Raj as his son, he too is never reunited with Leela.  

India in 1951 may not have been the India of today where the makers of an online series are being sued because a Muslim man and a Hindu woman fall in love and kiss at a temple, but we were always a combustible nation with religion being our fuel. For Raj then to have taken such a strong stand in his film was courageous then too, at a time when the gaping wounds of Partition had left fundamentalists on both sides of the religious divide resistant to debate. It is an ode to the country we once were that audiences and critics alike embraced Awara whole-heartedly. 

This is why the normalisation of the hero’s violence against Rita in Awara comes as a shock. In reality, progressive beliefs and regressive conduct do often co-habit within the same individual, but the disappointment in Awara arises because of the film’s own casual acceptance of Raj’s assault on Rita. In the scene in question, he gets furious when Rita calls him a “junglee” (savage) in jest. His inferiority complex boils over and he first violates her privacy by shoving aside a cloth behind which she is changing her clothes. He then chases her down the beach, and when he catches her, twists her arm behind her back till he hurts her, throttles her, slaps her repeatedly across her face and flings her to the ground. Far from being angry, Rita – a lawyer, mind you, not a dependent – falls at his feet in contrition and asks him to hit her again as punishment for her words. Raj then calms down. His reward for his aggression is her undying devotion. 

As disturbing as the actual violence is the fact that for almost seven decades, this scene has been acclaimed by analysts and euphemistically described variously as “raw”, “passionate” and “intense”.

This is not the only time Raj Kapoor portrayed violence towards a woman as standard, understandable fervour or light-hearted behaviour in a romantic relationship. 

In 1955’s Shree 420 – produced, directed and starring him, again written by Abbas and Sathe – although his character Raju is almost reverential towards Nargis’ Vidya through most of the film, when he is angry he shoves her around and throws her to the ground. It may be argued that he does suffer adverse consequences in Shree 420, but those consequences are unrelated to his physical roughness towards her that is fleeting enough to be brushed aside in a society in which “but he only hit her once”, “she must have done something to provoke him” and “well at least he did not hit her” remain routine responses to domestic violence. 

This nonchalance is reflected in a scene in the producer-director’s 1949 film Barsaat written by Ramanand Sagar, in which Pran (played by Raj) reaches out to Reshma (Nargis) who is standing behind him, clutches her hair and drags her forward to face him, all this supposedly as a mark of playful affection, while she squeals in pain. 

Raj’s attitude to women requires a separate essay, as he journeyed from reverence accompanied by an expectation of submission during his years with the formidable Nargis – with whom he shared a celebrated on-screen partnership from 1948 to 1956 and a widely discussed personal relationship – to the phase of objectification and cynicism despite overtly progressive messaging after they split up. This essay though is focused on Awara, one of the biggest films of his career that turned him into an international sensation, spawned remakes in Turkey and Iran, delivered one of the greatest Hindi film soundtracks of all time, articulated Raj’s socialist and feminist vision while unwittingly revealing other deeply problematic aspects of his ideology, and redefined grandeur in Bollywood, most especially in that beautifully conceived nearly-10-minute-long dream/nightmare sequence combining unforgettable music, sets, iconography and cinematography. 

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Raj Kapoors Awara swings between feminism and romanticising intimatepartner violence

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in Awara

In an interview to Simi Garewal for her 1980s documentary, Living Legend: Raj Kapoor, Raj summed up Awara in these words: “This script came in exactly at that time when India was evolving a new social concept, an acceptance for the millions of this people, just not a handful of the haves with the rest of the have-nots on one side. And basically Awara came in with a very strong…story that was very intense in its characters. It was juvenile romanticism. It was a romanticism, the kind of it probably you read in fairytales, the absolutely hobo of the street, the man with nothing, he dreams about a woman of the palaces.” 

When you love a film, it is tempting to gloss over its failings. When you love an artist, it is tempting to pretend that they are perfect. To do so is dangerous and untruthful though. Raj Kapoor and Awara were wonderful, but they were also not. 

All images from Twitter.

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