Women were the real heroes in Raj Kapoor's films
The leading lady got equal, if not more, prominence in his films.
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Almost all of the ten films that Raj Kapoor officially directed in his lifetime have transcended time and, save a handful of moments that might appear dated largely due to a particular style of execution, a major portion of his body of work is still relevant.
There are more than a few ways in which any film stands the test of time and among the primary reasons for a film’s longevity is it being watched by a lot people, and multiple times. In either case, it’s the believability of the characters that brings the viewer back.
The thread that binds Kapoor’s oeuvre is the manner in which his scripts ensured that the leading lady got equal, if not more, prominence which besides making the films convincing also transformed the hero into something exceptional.A still from Awaara.
The best example of this can be seen in the early films Kapoor directed that established him as a major creative force, namely Awaara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955). Even though Kapoor was the hero in both the films and the story is largely told from the point of view of his character, Raj, the narrative would lose much of its resonance but for Nargis’ presence.
The era when Kapoor was making some of his best films was inundated by stalwarts like Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand and barely anyone of them consciously made films that relegated women to the background.
In fact, popular Hindi cinema then had a great sense of equality when it came to the role of the heroine, but what makes Kapoor stand apart is that he was a top star in his own right and wasn’t an accidental actor like Guru Dutt.
For an actor to produce and direct his own films essentially meant casting himself in roles that otherwise wouldn’t have come his way, something that Feroz and Sanjay Khan would do in the 1970s and 1980s. But even in the films that he produced such as Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) Kapoor rarely wavered when it came to ensuring that his leading ladies had well-etched roles.
Directed by his long-time cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai marked the end of a phase in Kapoor’s filmography and following this his execution became grander and themes bolder. With Sangam (1964), a love triangle, Kapoor shifted the spotlight on the heroine with two heroes vying for her and Mera Naam Joker (1970), a quasi-autobiographical film, had three leading ladies and a plethora of themes that Kapoor believed had deep philosophical depth and meaning.A still from Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai.
If the self-directed films that had him as the leading man featured women on an equal footing, the films that Kapoor directed with someone else playing the hero essentially became the heroine’s story. With someone else being the leading man, Kapoor entered a new phase of his career and while Bobby (1973) might be a love story, which according to the definition of a romance drama had a script neatly balanced between the hero and the heroine, the film’s narrative subtly shifted focus towards the heroine as the film progressed.
Bobby begins with being the story of a lonely rich kid, played by Rishi Kapoor, but with each passing moment, everything about the film becomes about the girl, Bobby, essayed by Dimple Kapadia. This new-found woman power of sorts became more prominent post-Bobby and the woman practically became the new "hero" in the three films that Kapoor directed after Bobby.
Intriguingly enough, Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Prem Rog (1982) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) are not only told from the woman’s point view but also seem to feature the "same" hero. All three films seem to be lackadaisical when it comes to building the character of the hero and in each one, the hero seems to be the representation of society at large, which going by the way things play out, Kapoor doesn’t seem to think much of the "man".A still from Bobby.
Some quarters accused Kapoor of being exploitative towards women in his later films (Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili) and on the face of it there is more than enough to substantiate that but one can’t deny the fact that his narrative did put women on an equal pedestal.
In the films that featured him as the lead, Kapoor’s male leads shared a certain kind of familiarity amongst themselves, right from Aag (1948), Awaara and Shree 420, to Sangam. Yet this affinity seems more to do with Kapoor, the persona, as opposed to the character.
However, when it came to directing someone else in the lead, Kapoor seems to look at Ranjeev (Shashi Kapoor) in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Devdhar "Dev" (Rishi Kapoor) in Prem Rog and Narendra "Naren" (Rajeev Kapoor) in Ram Teri Ganga Maili through the same prism.
Raj Kapoor had plans to make Henna (1991), a film ultimately directed by his eldest son, Randhir Kapoor, and the film seemed to be a continuation of the mood that Kapoor had built with Prem Rog and Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Interestingly enough, had he not died so soon perhaps he would have even launched his granddaughter Karishma Kapoor, and it would have been fascinating to see how his narrative would have transitioned with the newer generation.