Revisiting the matinees of his youth, Kamlesh Pandey remembers Raj Kapoor and wonders whether movies today are similar rites of passage for his son’s generation. 

Long before they were reduced to cassettes one brought home from video libraries in a cheap plastic bag, long before slow motion, quick cutting and back-lighting took away the burden of performance from an actor, long before actresses became known by the cleavage they displayed, movies did what they were supposed to do — move people. They were worth missing classes for and getting thrashed for bad grades. A close-up of Dilip Kumar in Devdas was worth losing a career for, a smile from Madhubala in Howrah Bridge was worth spending an entire month’s college fees on, and Meena Kumari’s voice caressed you late into the night, long after the credits of Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam faded to white.

Those were the days when the country was divided into three more or less equal parts — between Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. In a Raj Kapoor constituency, you could get knifed if you were suspected to be a Dilip Kumar loyalist, and vice versa. Dev Anand belonged exclusively to the girls. These were not just movie stars, they were rites of passage. You grew up on them. You learned to love from them. You learned to suffer from them. You learned to walk, talk, dress and behave from them. You skipped classes but learnt about life instead in the semi darkness of a matinee, agonizing over the moral choices your stars had to suffer.

I was a Dilip Kumar loyalist and never cared much for Raj Kapoor … until I saw Awara in the late sixties. In its first run, Awara belonged to my father’s generation. It had been given an ‘A’ certificate, probably for the corrupting influence it might have had on the innocent minds of the post-independence youth. Mercifully, in reruns, the ‘A’ certificate was withdrawn. Either young India had grown up, or, in a rare moment of introspection, the Censor Board had realized its folly. And by the time I was old enough to choose the movies I wished to see, the movies of the 1950s had returned to the 60s’ matinees. Daag, Deedar, Devdas, Andaz, Aag, Barsaat, and of course Awara — they decided my career for me. Movies had got me.

They were not just movie stars, they were rites of passage. You learned to love from them. You learned to suffer from them. You learned to walk, talk, dress and behave from them.

Almost twenty-five years later, while writing N. Chandra’s Tezaab, I revisited Awara. And almost thirty-five years later, watching Awara and other Raj Kapoor films on television along with my teenage son, I revisited the matinees of my youth and what movies used to mean to us. And discovered what they mean to my son and his generation.

Tezaab was intended to be the Awara of the nineties (only in its social concerns, not in its story). There are scenes in Tezaab which are hidden tributes to Raj Kapoor. For instance, the introduction of the hero in Tezaab echoes the introduction of the villain in Awara. And the love scene between Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit in which he threatens to kill her and himself if she were to leave him for another man, echoes the tenor and resonance of the violently erotic beach scene between Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Even my son noticed, as I and my generation had, the metaphor of a rich and affluent Nargis kneeling before the poor and underprivileged Raj Kapoor and begging to be embraced. “It must have soothed the egos of the poor people then,” my son observed. “No wonder it was a hit.” It was a surprising insight from a member of a generation growing up on long movie titles, in which they consider words like “Hum”, “Dil”, “Pyar” and “Hain” mandatory.

Tezaab was a violent love story. The India of Awara was still innocent and hopeful. But by the late 1980s, violence had become a way of life. In Awara, K.N. Singh’s knife could scare the hell out the audience. In Tezaab, the audience needed fireballs, massive destruction and a woman scarred with acid. Awara was about the germs of crime infesting young minds, and a generation going astray, but that was still circumstantial. In spite of the disillusionment, there was the hope that things would better if social conditions improved. Tezaab was about the rape of hope by the reality of the past forty years. The great betrayal of young India by its leadership. The corruption of values to such a degree that even parents hung on like leeches to their offspring’s bodies, exploiting them for their own greed. By the late 1980s, the dividing line between heroes and villains had blurred. Everybody was suspect. Dreams were not just deferred, they were lost forever.

But the power, passion and raw energy that drove Tezaab was courtesy that one close-up of Raj Kapoor in the courtroom behind the wire mesh. Silence has rarely been so vocal; words have rarely failed an actor so eloquently. The hunger, the frustration, the anger, the bitterness, the helplessness, the pain of an entire post-independence generation, struggle with each other in that one close-up. I remember telling Anil Kapoor to study that close-up every time he faced the camera for Tezaab — Anil managed to win the Filmfare award for Best Actor that year!

And that was just Raj Kapoor the actor. He also produced and directed Awara. And he was only 25 at the time!

Raj Kapoor And My Son, Kamlesh Pandey, MW Archives

My son was incredulous, “Only twenty-five? You are kidding!.” “Why,” I reminded him, “Sooraj Barjatya was 25 when he made Maine Pyar Kiya, Aditya Chopra was 25 when he made Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Karan Johar was 25 when he made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. “Oh, but they didn’t make Awara,” he replied. New vistas had opened for him. This was the lad for whom, not too long before, it had come as a surprise that there were movies before Amitabh Bachchan, that “they were not bad at all in spite of being in black and white, in spite of their arsenal being limited to switch blades, and in spite of the villain’s ransom demands rarely exceeding Rs 10,000.”

He went on, “You guys were very lucky indeed. You had Awara, you had Shree 420, Aag, Barsaat, and Jaagte Raho. You even had Boot Polish and Ab Dilli Door Nahin that I hadn’t even heard of. I mean, how lucky can you get?”

I do not know if Rani Mukherji’s voice caresses him late into the night… if Shahrukh Khan, Govinda and Aamir are mesmerizing enough to steal his future from him… if he spends his pocket money on Karishma’s movies

And he still hasn’t seen Daag, Deedar, Devdas and Andaz. Not to mention Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Saheb, Bibi Aur Ghulam. Definitely not Teesri Kasam, Sujata and Bandini. And so many others. He would have been not just unhappy, he would have been raving mad. He had thought Deewar was the last word in Hindi cinema until he saw Ganga Jamuna and Mother India.

It was reassuring to know that good movies move anybody, anytime, anywhere, even a generation for whom Raj Kapoor is merely the grandfather of Karishma Kapoor. And it is as tragic to know that Bobby clones are still being mass-produced when the stars of Bobby are themselves well past their middle age.

Is it really that hard to outgrow Raj Kapoor? Probably. Awara, Shree 420, Aag, and Barsaat are of course acknowledged classics. But take a minor film like Ab Dilli Door Nahin, or Boot Polish. My son asked me if Boot Polish inspired Salaam Bombay? I really do not know. All I know is that Boot Polish still brings a lump to my throat, Salaam Bombay never did. The song ‘Nanhe- Munhe Bachche, Teri Muththi Mein Kya Hain?’ still hurts as much as it did. Especially the part when David as John Chacha asks the two kids Baby Naaz and Ratan Kumar to tell him what the future holds because he won’t be there to see it, and they tell him that in tomorrow’s world, no one will go hungry and misery won’t rule. The faces of those two kids lit with hope deserve to be enshrined in the pages of the Constitution of India forever!

In fact, I had written a musical street-play for Tezaab that used the line ‘Nanhe-Munhe … ’ as a refrain. It was a grim spin-off from the song, reflecting John Chacha’s future, which had become the present. We could not use it in Tezaab because of the length of the film. After watching Boot Polish together, I had my son take a look at the street-play to see what a member of the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai generation thought of it. It was reassuring to see it connected. “Now I know why,” my son smiled, “you can’t write blockbusters that solve all personal problems with the help of a Ganapati idol atop a music system.” All was not yet lost for a generation being told by our movies to believe that the only problem in life was which man or woman to marry, the only moral choice to make was which gun to pick up, and the only pain in life was a particularly rude pimple that just would not go away.

Ab Dilli Door Nahin was a minor film even by the standards of the 1950s. A simple story: a boy trying to meet Jawaharlal Nehru to get justice for his father who is accused of a murder he did not commit. Directed by one of Raj Kapoor’s assistants, it had Motilal, Sulochana and Master Romi in the lead. I was permitted to see it during its first run because (a) it had a few shots of Jawaharlal Nehru, and (b) it was about the perseverance and dedication of a kid to save his father’s life. I still remember the applause when Nehru appeared on the screen. My son was too engrossed in the story to even notice Nehru. “So, in your time, not all movies were love stories or revenge stories,” he observed. “Yes, we even had a Jaagte Raho, which was about a thirsty man from a village trying to find some water in big, bad Bombay,” I offered. “Isn’t that on Wednesday? Shit! I’ll be at school.”

Raj Kapoor And My Son, Kamlesh Pandey, MW Archives

“Who was the old actor who played the father?” he asked, getting back to the film we had just seen. “He was so natural!” “Motilal”, I told him. “The prince of effortless performance.” “Why don’t we have actors like him anymore?” he repeated. “That’s the second time you have asked that question.” “I know,” said this Shah Rukh Khan fan as he slouched off to his room to wrestle with his homework.

I do not know if Rani Mukherji’s voice caresses him late into the night, long after Ghulam is over on cable and live dandiya is on. I do not know if Shah Rukh, Govinda and Aamir are mesmerising enough to steal his future from him. I do not know if he spends his pocket money on Karishma’s movies. I do not know whether the moral choices made by Salman Khan give my son sleepless nights. I do not know if forty years from now, he will watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge with his son or daughter and tell them how great Shah Rukh, Aamir and Govinda were in the 1990s and how the stars of the 2040s do not match their enormous talent. Nor do I know if he would catch Ab Dilli Door Nahin, Boot Polish, Awara or Shree 420 on an archival channel late one night and remember his father who grew up on Dilip Kumar and introduced him to Raj Kapoor’s films and who paid hidden tributes to Awara in Tezaab.

I do not know.

All I know is that it is very hard to outgrow Raj Kapoor no matter how old you are.

This story was first published in February 2000 |Image courtesy: Film stills 

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