x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Raj Kapoor: a legend of the movies

In time for this month's Kapoor retrospective at the BFI in London, we look back at the career of one of India's greatest showmen.

Raj Kapoor. Pramod Pushkarna / The India Today Group / Getty Images
Raj Kapoor. Pramod Pushkarna / The India Today Group / Getty Images

There is no surprise that the British Film Institute would choose to put on a retrospective of the work of Raj Kapoor. Whether he was working in front or behind the camera, the Pakistani star always managed to live up to his reputation as "the Charlie Chaplin of Indian Cinema".

In addition to showing newly restored prints of Kapoor's enduring works - The Vagabond (Awaara), Where the Ganges Flows, Monsoon, Boot Polish, My Name Is Joker, Bobby, Fire and Shree 420 - there is a four-lesson course on his life and work being delivered by the writer and programmer Behroze Gandhy. For many, he remains the biggest star to have ever come out of Indian cinema. His films played at Cannes and his name was known throughout the world in an age when talent rather than marketing seemed to get stars noticed.

Kapoor was born in Peshawar in what was British India in 1924. Movies were in his blood from a young age; his first job was working as a clapper boy and as an 11-year-old he appeared in the 1935 Debaki Bose film Inquilab. In 1948 at the age of 24, he established his own studio, RK Films, and became the youngest film director of his time when he made Fire (Aag).

A showing of Fire kicks off the season that takes place throughout the month of February. In it, Kapoor plays a theatre producer obsessed with beauty and self-sacrifice. He meets three women with the same name over the course of his life and dreams about performing alongside them.

It was The Vagabond that would turn Kapoor into an international star because it was in this 1951 movie that he first used the tramp persona. Kapoor took the role as the sly, cunning tramp who could charm the trousers off anyone he met and astonishingly managed a feat that outdid the great Charlie Chaplin - he made the character work in the era of sound.

The vagabond character would from this moment feature in several of his rags-to-riches tales. Probably the most famous appearance came in the 1955 film Shree 420, referring to the Indian penal code statute for fraud. Bumpkin Raju is introduced to the big city and the criminal underworld but the film is best remembered for the famous dance sequence where, dressed in a goofy hat and short trousers, he sings the immortal lines: "My shoes are Japanese, these pants are English, on my head is a Russian hat, but still my heart is Hindustani."

The legacy of the song could most recently be seen in Players, the Bollywood remake of The Italian Job, in which a Russian villain is coaxed into singing the famous tune. His legacy also continues through his grandchildren, Karisma Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor.

Boot Polish was nominated for the Palme d'Or three years after The Vagabond played in competition. From the start, Kapoor was given a place at the table alongside the world's best auteurs by the French film festival. More than a comedian, his social criticisms often had him compared to the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica.

As with all great artists, the story is not one of continued success. The year 1970 saw the release of My Name Is Joker, which took more than six years to make - he served as producer, director and star, and it was a financial disaster that was condemned as an exercise in self-pity. A revisit shows that this was one of Kapoor's best films and has been proclaimed a self-reflexive masterpiece. He turns his previous heroic crown into an anti-hero figure, moving the character on from Chaplin's heroism to becoming depressed and money-orientated. Its closest companion is Federico Fellini's La Strada.

It's not possible to understate the impact that Kapoor has had on the Indian film industry today. His career remains the template followed by many stars and his more than 60 appearances as an actor and 10 directorial efforts are often referenced in the latest movies. The retrospective is more like a "best of" album, a reappraisal of an actor who died at age 63 in Mumbai in 1988 after complications relating to asthma.

The British Film Institute's tribute to the actor-director and pioneer of Bollywood cinema Raj Kapoor continues until February 29. For film screening and timings, visit www.bfi.org.uk