Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema

In July & August, the PFA had a six film series titled The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema.  Raj Kapoor (1924-1988) was one of the best known Indian actors although he was also a director & producer.

I saw two films in the series.

Aag starring Raj Kapoor & Nargis; directed by Kapoor; Hindi with subtitles; (1948)
Bobby starring  Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Pran & Premnath; directed by Raj Kapoor; Hindi with subtitles; (1973)

Aag is a beautiful looking black & white film.  Cinematographer V.N. Reddy used shadows and its effect brilliantly in what appears to be a low budget film.  Kapoor plays Kewal Khanna, a student reluctantly studying law to continue the family's long tradition in that profession.  After deliberately failing his final exam, Kewal is banished from the family home by his father (played by Kamal Kapoor but no relation).  This allows Kewal to follow his true dream of acting.

Kewal meets with Rajan (Premnath), a painter who helps him establish his own theater.  The two become best friends and Kewal's flourishes artistically and emotionally.  The only hole in his heart is for Nimmi (Nargis), his true love since he was a boy.  Kewal writes plays & cast actresses trying to find or recreate Nimmi or his idealized version of her.  When he finally discovers an actress who "fits the bill" he is disheartened to learn that Rajan has eyes for her (he paints her obsessively).  Unable to reconcile his love for the woman (or the woman she represents) against the love for his best friend, Kewal disfigures his own face (setting the theater on fire in the process).

The entire film is told in flashback on Kewal's wedding night. Aag has one surprise left for the ending.

I've always thought Bollywood films have difficulty with drama.  The de rigueur use of songs and over reliance on plot contrivances undercut the drama of a film.  In this case, Aag is a tragedy with an ending tacked on to make it seem like Kewal has triumphed.  Is it what Indian filmgoers want to see?  I suppose or else Bollywood wouldn't keep cranking them out.

At 168 minutes, I found Aag difficult to sit through.  As they say in the business world, it is what it is and you go to an Bollywood film with that knowledge.  You either accept the film on its own terms or you don't go.  That can be true of any film but I'm often able to find enjoyable and meaningful portions of films that are less than outstanding on the whole.  With Bollywood films, I have difficulty accepting drama or even extended melodrama.  I like my Bollywood films light-hearted and comedic to match the music.  Aag doesn't fit this categorization and as such I was not able to fully appreciate it.  I'd like to see the classic Bollywood film which plays it straight up without musical numbers.

If my opinion of Aag is mixed, it is more than made up for with my enthusiasm for Bobby.

Raj Nath (Rishi Kapoor, son of Raj Kapoor), is the son of a wealthy businessman Mr. Nath (Pran).  Visiting his old nanny, Raj meets the woman's granddaughter Bobby (Dimple Kapadia) and it is love at first sight.  Bobby's father, Jack (Premnath) is a poor, uncouth fisherman.  I'm not sure about the Kennedy brother reference for father & daughter except Jack & Bobby (in the film and real-life) are Catholic.  As the romance progresses, Mr. Nath is not going to allow his son to marry into his former housekeeper's family.  He accuses Jack of using Bobby's beauty to lure Raj into marriage so that he can have access to the Nath fortune.  To further drive a wedge, Mr. Nath arranges for Raj to be married to the daughter of another wealthy businessman.

Unable to tolerate their fathers' constant arguments and meddling in their lives, Raj & Bobby run away together. Mr. Nath puts out a reward for his son's return which attracts the attention of Prem Chopra (played by Prem Chopra, Raj Kapoor's brother-in-law) and his gang.  They capture the lovers but Chopra begins to beat Raj when he tries to escape.  The fathers and police arrive to save the young couple but they still flee from their fathers.  The climax involves a waterfall and each father saving the other's child from death, realizing the love each has for their child and allowing the marriage.

With broad comic brushstrokes and over-the-top performances by the fathers, Bobby was crowd pleasing.  Pram and Premnath (also credited as Prem Nath in some films) steal the scenes in which they are in individually or together.  Premnath was also Raj Kapoor's brother-in-law; Bobby was a family affair!  With upbeat songs and unabashed melodrama/romance, Bobby is well made and a pleasing Bollywood musical by my standards.

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