14th December 1924: Raj Kapoor, Indian actor and director, was born

Known as the greatest showman of Indian cinema, actor, director and producer Raj Kapoor was born on December 14, 1924, in Peshawarto Prithviraj, an actor himself, and Ramsarni Devi.

He got his first film role at the age of 11 in ‘Inquilab’. The 1947 film ‘Neel Kamal’ is considered to be the first time he played a major lead role. Kapoor set up his own studio R.K. Films in the late 1940s and made his directorial debut with ‘Aag’, in which he was also the producer and lead actor. In ‘Aag’ Kapoor plays the role of an artist who rebels after he is forced by his father to continue the family tradition of becoming a lawyer, and searches for his ideal woman. The film, which also has Kamal Kapoor and Nargis, did not do too well at the box office. In her National Award-winning book Awara the film scholar Gayatri Chatterjee writes: “‘Aag’ illustrates more than amply how he [Raj Kapoor] could never bring about a reconciliation between physical human love and passions and the other passions of creativity and spirituality. For him, in ‘Aag’ the childhood love for a girl was ideal….But of course she does not become the perfect/ideal representation.” 

Kapoor then starred in the 1949 superhit ‘Andaz’, which also had Dilip Kumar and Nargis in lead roles and was directed by Mehboob Khan. ‘Andaz’ is a love triangle, with Kapoor playing a foreign-returned man who loves and marries a businessman’s daughter (Nargis) but suspects her of having an affair with her friend (Dilip Kumar).

Between 1949 and 1960, Kapoor made some of his most memorable films, including ‘Barsaat’ (1949), ‘Awaara’ (1951) and ‘Shree 420’ (1955). This was also the time when he adopted the Chaplin-like persona of the ‘tramp’ in his films. ‘Barsaat’, which also stars Nargis and features two parallel love stories, had some memorable songs, a striking feature of most Kapoor films.

According to the writer and critic Vinay Lal, many of his films “were to be characterized not only by lively music, but by the extensive use of elaborate sets. The angst of the common man is portrayed through heavy brooding landscapes and sets with sharply contrasted light. Visual imagery would always be an important part of his films.”

Many critics regard ‘Awaara’ as Kapoor’s best work. It is, in fact, considered to be among the greatest films in Indian cinema history. Included in Time magazine’s all-time 100 greatest films list in 2012, the film, with its starkly socialist theme wrapped in a poignant love story, was extremely popular in several countries, particularly the Soviet Union andMiddle East nations. ‘Awaara’ is the story of Raj (played by Kapoor) who is born and raised on the streets after his father (Prithviraj), a respected judge, abandons his pregnant wife, suspecting that the child is not his. Interestingly, Raj uses his real name in the film and Prithviraj is also his real-life father.

Reflecting on the fact that Raj, the actor, the director and the person come together in the film, Chatterjee writes: “‘Awara’ is an interesting film to watch for Kapoor is so very conscious of what he is doing, of the medium, of the question of money revolving around it, of himself as a man and an artist, and as a performer, who has a close relationship with his audience…He is a passionate performer who took full advantage of the performative and participatory nature of Indian cinema. As a true performer he is tremendously interested in the craft of the medium.”

Kapoor directed and acted in ‘Sangam’, his first film in colour, in 1964. After ‘Sangam’, which also starred Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayantimala, he did not find much success as a leading actor.

His 1970 film ‘Mera Naam Joker’, in which he was producer, director and lead actor, did badly at the box office. His next big success as director would come with the 1973 super hit ‘Bobby’ that starred his son Rishi Kapoor and a very young Dimple Kapadia. Some of later films as director include ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, and ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’.  

Shortly after he was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Raj Kapoor died, on June 2, 1988, after suffering from complications linked to asthma.

Kapoor’s importance in Indian cinema is unique because of his multiple successes as actor, director and producer, and the social analysis his films offered, particularly in the first half of his career as filmmaker. As Rachel Saltz wrote in The New York Times: “In a mostly formulaic and conservative industry, he [Raj Kapoor] made inventive, personal films that were entertaining and accessible but also something more...They resonated in — and maybe even helped to define — a newly independent India busy inventing itself.” 

Also on this day:

1946 — Sanjay Gandhi, Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son, was born 

1936 — Biswajit, Bengali actor, was born 

1953 — Vijay Amritraj, Indian tennis player, was born

1934 — Shyam Benegal, renowned Indian director, was born   

1918 — B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga, was born  

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