The bandit Jagga kidnaps Leela, Judge Raghunath’s wife. Upon learning that Leela is pregnant, Jagga lets her go. People believe that Jagga is the father. Though she is already pregnant when Jagga kidnaps her, the easily swayed Judge Raghunath doubts Leela and throws her out. Leela gives birth to a baby boy near a gutter on the street. She hopes that Raj will grow up to be a judge like his real father. Raj is attracted to Rita, his playmate at school, but they are separated by circumstances. Leela struggles to make ends meet. Jagga forces Raj into a life of crime. Raj grows up with ambivalent feelings for his missing father. Judge Raghunath becomes Rita’s guardian after she is orphaned. Raj and Rita meet again as grown-ups. They fall in love and recognise each other as childhood sweethearts. Rita attempts to reform Raj. Raj struggles to redeem himself and become worthy of Rita.
Awara is often referred to as Raj Kapoor’s most accomplished film. Its smooth narrative style and elegant production design brought instant recognition to Kapoor as an actor and director, not to mention the notoriety he achieved for his on- and off-screen romance with his co-star Nargis. The film opens with the image of a starving mongrel feeding on crumbs from a street urchin on a dark, shadowy street as the credits roll out – a defining image of urban squalor and destitution. The scene takes place in the metropolitan setting of Bombay (now Mumbai), where the protagonist Raj is kicked around on empty, dangerous streets, like the homeless dog in the title sequence. As the rest of the film unfolds, the dog emerges as a symbol of social disparagement, unemployment and poverty in post-independence India.
Like Mother India, Awara influenced an entire gamut of Indian films, be it through its use of courtroom scenarios, flashbacks or lavishly choreographed dream sequences. The dream sequence where Raj moves from purgatory to heaven is a case in point. Often cited for its glittering, white set, the number Ghar aaya mera Pardesi (‘My foreigner has come home’) features a spiralling staircase with fog machines that evoke the hallucinatory but distant euphoria of a celestial space. Unafraid to experiment with new narrative techniques within what is broadly conceived as a mass-medium, Kapoor came to be known as a master scenarist and showman. He opens Awara with a flashback, with Rita defending Raj in court. The flashback may be a nod to Citizen Kane (1941), whose influence is apparent in Kapoor’s use of grand interiors and light and shadow to evoke social dysfunction and psychological alienation.1 Kapoor adapted Hollywood-style continuity editing (eyeline matches that follow the 180-degree rule; match-cuts that join disparate planes of action) to tell an essentially Indian story based on popular conceptions of the vagrant as a seer imbued with worldly-wise insight. His use of rhythmic montage offers a striking example of his recasting of European art-house idioms in a popular Indian mould. Take the song Naiyya teri Majhdar, Hoshiyaar (‘Your boat is midstream, beware’). Kapoor interrupts the smooth flow of action as a chorus sings about impending danger. He ends the song abruptly with a scene where Jagga kidnaps Leela to take revenge on Judge Raghunath (who has sentenced him for a crime he has not committed because Jagga’s father was a convict). Soviet-style editing produces an overall effect that is jerky and unsettling but entirely convincing within the edgy narrative.
Elsewhere Jagga towers as the villain who browbeats the innocent Raj into stealing bread in a low angle shot that came to be known as the ‘Russian angle’. With his fair skin and blue eyes, Kapoor was considered rakishly attractive: his moustache and hairstyle recall Clark Gable – he assumes his wry, ironic posture in several close-ups. Indeed, Kapoor was so light-skinned that he could pass off as a European gentleman: the question of ‘whiteness’ comes up several times in the film.2 Though poor, Raj looks so wealthy and privileged that he is never mistaken for a thief: ‘[It’s] not your fault … it’s just the way I look (tumhara kusoor nahin, meri soorat hi aisi hai)’, he tells Rita when she finally learns about his true identity. As Raj, Kapoor often plays himself and even retains his off-screen name. He often frames himself in soft-focus close-ups that function as reminders of his illustrious off-screen life. His father Prithviraj Kapoor was a prominent actor, who had begun his career in the silent era and was well respected for his work on the Bombay stage. Claiming that theatre was the real school, Kapoor left his formal education and worked as a stagehand and bit actor before making his first film Aag (The Fire, 1948) when he was just 24.3 Prithviraj agreed to play the role of the father in Awara as well. Raj Kapoor cast his younger brother Shashi as the child Raj: Awara is, in every sense of the word, a family drama. Raghunath may forget his son, but the audience is not allowed to forget who the father is and who the son. The adroit casting alleviates Raj’s culpability while amplifying the father’s injustice several times over. The audience’s sympathy for Raj is left intact at every opportunity, Awara (1951) 59 so much so that his ‘lineage’ is consistently preserved through his star image, even when he plays the rogue. Kapoor drew significantly on Charlie Chaplin in the song ‘Awara Hoon’ (‘I am a vagabond’), appearing in the tramp’s baggy pants and bowler hat, an element that became even more pronounced in his next film Shree 420 (Mr 420, 1955). He was indebted to Chaplin for creating the image of a vagabond as an everyman. However, the Indian tramp also varies significantly: witty repartee replaces Chaplin’s physical comic routines. The narrative is steered by an unprecedented sexual frankness and the burning pathos of song and dance numbers that go well beyond Chaplin’s use of mime and humour.4
The plot is regulated by a set of ironic reversals and traumatic setbacks: Raj is well born but ends up with Jagga the bandit, who, in howsoever twisted a form, nurtures him. Judge Raghunath lacks judgement and ruins Jagga because of his unfair sentence. The ‘judge’ fails to fulfil his legal obligations to his family – Awara often portrays the father as the real criminal. Raghunath’s gait is heavy and cumbersome – in the opening sequences the camera frames him in low angles that represent his girth, megalomania and hypocrisy. As the film progresses, the camera reverses this position to frame Raghunath in high angles that dwarf his position and make him look very small: father and son see eye to eye by the end of the film as Raj grows in stature. It is clear that Raghunath treats Leela brutally, literally kicking his heavily pregnant wife out on a stormy night, an incident that alludes to the epic Ramayana, where Ram casts his wife Sita out after she is kidnapped by the demon Ravana. Kapoor incorporates numerous references to the Ramayana: Raghunath is another name for Ram but with an important difference in that Awara’s setting is urban. He foregrounds Leela’s relentless suffering – Raghunath’s car knocks Leela out in a fatal accident that leaves her blind and unable to recognise him. Like her mythical counterpart Sita, Leela continues to worship her husband in spite of his ‘crime’ in an unrelenting display of faith. But unlike Sita, Leela lacks true strength and fortitude – perhaps the reason why Raghunath is named after Ram but Leela is not named after Sita. In the epic, Sita asks mother earth to swallow her up in a final demonstration of strength that proves her innocence. Leela, on the other hand, is utterly powerless – she is destroyed by forces that are too large and beyond her control.