The Actor-Director Auteurs of Hindi Cinema: Part 1

The Joker and The Tramp

For 40 years, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound  magazine’s once-in-a-decade critics selection of the greatest films of all time has been topped repeatedly by one film – Citizen Kane. In 2012, Vertigo jumped over it, so Orson Welles’s monumental masterpiece now stands at number 2. Back in 1941, Citizen Kane did not recover its costs and was pulled out of the theaters soon after release. Contrary to its box office failure, it had critical acclaim from the start – industry peers voted and gave it nine nominations at the annual Academy Awards. The final votes gave the film just one win – screenplay. The movie was all but forgotten and Orson Welles moved on to other films. But a decade later, it was reviewed by French cinema theorists in the 1950s. Since then, it has been lauded as the greatest ever. One important aspect that distinguishes this film from all the other great films in the all-time list is the profile of the auteur – i.e., the writer-director cum lead-actor. In the Sight and Sound list, there is only one other person of a similar profile – Charles Chaplin.

Closer to home, while Orson Welles would inspire people like Satyajit Ray, Charles Chaplin’s brilliant tragicomic works that fused entertaining humour and deep social commentary together, would find resonance in many mainstream Indian film makers. Specifically in Hindi cinema, we find that the number of such triple-role film-makers, especially those who are legends of all time, are far greater than in most cinemas around the world – Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Bhagwan, Dev Anand, V Shantaram, Mehmood, IS Johar, Manoj Kumar, Feroz Khan and for some time Nagesh Kukunoor as well. If you make a list of the greatest Hindi films of all time, the percentage of films made by these film makers will be much higher than the rest of world.

On this unique breed of Indian auteurs, I will put together a list of 10-15 great films and describe these auteurs using these films. In Part 1, we start with two films from 1951. There are many things common between these two films: both are stories of a person who tries to break out of his early life of poverty and misery; both these films feature the female protagonist as a guide of sorts, leading the male hero towards success; and both have some of the most memorable music in Hindi cinema. The two auteurs also share many things – one inspired the other to break from his early dishum-dishum films and make a social film; the other influenced with his slow dancing.

#1: Albela, 1951, Bhagwan Dada


The Tribune in its obituary of Bhagwan in 2002 gave the headline “Bhagwan’s riches to rags story”. To be more precise, his story was one of rags to riches, and back to rags again. Bhagwan grew up in the chawls of “Girangaon”, the village of textile mills in central Bombay. He wanted to get out of that environment and had made up his mind to hit big time in the movies. In those days, the film industry operated in Bhagwan’s part of Bombay. Bhagwan found himself wandering into those studios in the 1920s looking for work. His now-familiar rotund body with large bulging eyes impressed a director who gave him a comic role. The film became a hit and he was noticed. After struggling around looking for more work, Bhagwan got a chance to direct films. His first film as a director, Bahadur Kisan in 1934, featured Hansa Wadkar and it was a hit. He made genre films – horror, action, thrillers – which were extremely popular. This put cash in his pockets and soon he was driving around in big cars and hobnobbing with the city’s high society.

Raj Kapoor, who had seen many of his earlier dishum-dishum films told him to take up more serious stories. Bhagwan teamed up with his friends Chitalkar and Rajinder Kishan, and in 1951, created Albela.

The film mirrors his own life. Pyarelal lives and dreams of theater. His penchant for breaking into monologue and theatrical repartee lands him in trouble at work and he finds himself jobless. He leaves home, unable to contribute to the already impoverished household. He is given shelter as a washer boy in the home of an actress Asha who, impressed by his talent, gets him a chance in a theater show. The film then follows his career, his relationship with Asha and tops it with a happy ending.

The film is structured like a standard Broadway musical with songs in every other scene. There are dream sequences, there are a number of stage productions (where the two protagonists, both theater entertainers, go about putting up week on week shows in their theater company). And then there are a couple of songs which happen as intimate scenes between the two protagonists as they grow closer to each other (YTL to Balma Bada Nadan Hain, one of the best songs of the film, a solo by Lataji).

There are two beautiful aspects of the narrative structure. The first one deals with the songs. Every time the movie breaks into an elaborate song sequence, there is no prior information or sign to suggest what it is. It just starts off, like it is all a natural sequence of events. All of them involve the elegant and expressive Geeta Bali and Bhagwan, and you as the audience become privy to a series of delightful musical exchanges between two lovers. They joke and taunt, throw verbal challenges at each other and then patch up at the end of the song. Rajender Kishan should have been effectively credited as the dialogue writer since the most important dialogues in the film are the song lines. The settings for each song is unique – a Mughal residence, a giant clock, a beach, a street scene straight out of Romeo and Juliet and many more. When each song ends, the very next shot, tells you what it was – a dream or just another stage show or the actual relationship between the two protagonists. Thus, there is a blurring of lines between dreams, reality and theatre. Since the two protagonists are the same in all the songs, you can’t really believe that it is all made up.

And then, very soon after each song, the story cuts to a parallel arc in the film. Parallel to the musical arc of the film is the story of Pyarelal’s family. While Pyarelal is on his way to stardom singing songs with Asha, his family goes through a sequence of misfortunes. Here, Bhagwan brings in the experiences of his own background and uses these scenes to highlight many different Indian social issues – dowry, the burden of a daughter’s wedding, the breakup of families and most importantly the fatalistic attitudes of poor people. While Pyarelal went off to chase his dreams, the others are left behind suffering their own “phuti kismat”. The presentation of this dichotomy is the second great aspect of this film. Throughout the film, Bhagwan the director takes you back and forth from the hopelessness of fatalism and the positivity of taking initiative & following your dreams.

Albela is a genuine classic of Hindi cinema and cinematically Bhagwan’s best work. It ran for more than 50 weeks. But Bhagwan could never create another successful film like this. He fell into the trap of trying to recycle the same ideas, coming up with films like Labela and Jhamela with similar storylines and songs. As every film bombed, he started selling off his cars and pawning his wife’s jewelry. Soon, he found himself without any capital or clout in the industry and many of his later films remained incomplete. For almost half a century, (he died in 2002, 51 years after Albela was released) he had to survive, and manage his family by doing small character roles and drawing a pension from the film associations.

#2: Awara, 1951, Raj Kapoor


Raj Kapoor stands out as a unique composite of a great entertainer as well as an insightful commentator on society. In that respect, he was very close to his idol, Chaplin, whom he obviously copied, not just in terms of cinema style but also physical appearance. Unlike Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor made sure that the mass audience got their share of entertainment since their presence inside a theatre was important for revenues.

The RK films were built around idealism and how far away people were from it in reality – the tussle between the dignity of knowledge (Nargis as Vidya) and the volatility and illusion of glamour (Nadira as Maya) shown in Shri 420 (1955); and of course, evoking Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” in Mera Naam Joker (1970), where various people enter one’s life and go away after playing their part – there is even a song where the joker describes life as a three hour show. Even the ones produced by RK Films but directed by other people had his contribution in the choice of subjects – Jagte Raho (1956) directed by Amit and Shambu Moitra showed the dark side of the city, a crude shock for the poor peasant who thinks cities offer great happiness. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hain (1960), directed by his long time cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, dealt with dacoits and how they are caused by the structure of Indian society.

At the time of making Awara, Raj Kapoor was already a big name in the industry. He could command the best resources in the industry. With Awara, Raj Kapoor stepped up his scale of work – this was not a film with mere dialogue exchanges. He brought in surreal dream sequences, large courtroom scenes, intricate plot lines and a large cast of characters.

The story, written by KA Abbas, is complex – it begins with the father rejecting his pregnant wife after she is returned by a kidnapper, suspecting that there had been sexual contact and unable to deal with it . The wife is left on the streets, which is where our hero is born. Here, through the powerful voice of Prithviraj who plays the father, the concept of eugenics is put forth – son of a criminal will always be a criminal and so on. There is a clear wall between the privileged and the other lot and inferior people must be kept away, isolated from civil society.

Then as the son Raju (played by Raj Kapoor) grows up to become a familiar looking roadside tramp (last seen 20 years prior, in 1931’s Modern Times) and a thief, he meets Rita (played by Nargis), who offers to bring him back into civil society – to move from a life of crime and misery to a life of honest, dignified and comfortable living. This idea, of Rita guiding Raju reminds one of Beatrice guiding Dante – both of them headed to a better life. But this is blocked – both by the father who cannot accept his son and the criminal foster father for whom creating a criminal out of someone privileged, is an act of revenge on the same society.

There is another role for Rita, apart from being the guide. She also serves as the peacemaker – attempting to reunite the torn family. She fails, because the cause of division is not a mere human folly but rather a clash of ideals – at the level of nature versus nurture.

In all his films, Raj Kapoor uses the lead woman character to not just entice and charm the audiences, but also be the conduit of idealism. He continued this with Shri 420, Bobby, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, and Ram Teri Ganga Maili. It is the male hero that has to go through changes while the female lead remains rock-steady, a guiding light for his journey.  

There is violence and acts of desperation, but while we know murder can never be justified, we find ourselves condoning it because we are softened by the events that have happened so far. Raju will be punished as per law but for Rita (and indeed for us, the audience), he is now free and worth waiting for. There is both a sense of elation that Raju is out of his hole but at the same time a sense of defeat that this has to be done by killing the people standing in the way, rather than winning them over through debate and dialogue.

Awara went places in India and beyond. In it, Hindi cinema had found an aesthete that seemed to have a global appeal. What Raj Kapoor got right compared to others was to know how to temper the drama with appropriate doses of lighter, more mass-audience-oriented fare. Shankar Jaikishen, Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri helped him out significantly here. He gave the audiences glamour with his leading ladies becoming progressively seductive over time. In short, he, to paraphrase from a song from Mera Naam Joker, he was a showman with equal doses of dramatic realism and entertaining fiction.

In 2012, TIME added Awara in the 100 Greatest Films of All Time.


Next Time

In next part, I will take up two more auteurs, both pioneers in the industry and also contemporaries of Bhagwan and Raj Kapoor. But their films were as different from the way they were as chalk is from cheese. Specifically, I will pick up two films from 1957.

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