This is the belief up for discussion in Raj Kapoor’s timeless 1951 epic Awara. The importance of this film to Hindi cinema cannot be understated. It was one of the first Indian films to gain international acclaim. Its famous dream sequence was a landmark in the Bollywood industry. And the performances by the leading trio – Raj Kapoor, Nargis, and Prithviraj Kapoor – are sublime and among the best roles in their already star-studded repertoires.
Awara perfectly straddles the gap between Raj Kapoor’s darker, earlier films Aag and Barsaat and his much lighter work Shree 420. It has its moments of whimsy: a charming, dimpled Raj singing “Awara Hoon” while strolling through the streets of Bombay and the hero’s early antics in trying to woo a glowing Nargis, among other scenes. But it is also quite dark: Raj’s mother giving birth to him in a dirty, wet alleyway sets the tone for the life of poverty they will have to endure.
On the surface, Awara is a gripping drama and a sizzling romance. But, like other RK FIlms, questions on humanity lie deep, occasionally surfacing in remarks from the characters. Does nature or nurture make a man? Is the father role essential in growing a healthy family? And can someone raised in crime and poverty break free from those chains to rise to a more honest life?
Proceed with caution: spoilers ahead.
I’ve seen some make comparisons between the tramp characters in Awara and Shree 420, and I’ll start off by saying that while there are some similiarities between the two, mostly in dress and appearance, I found the Awara role much darker and flawed, whereas in Shree 420, the character was more idealized.
Raj Kapoor’s character in Shree 420 was a charming country dweller who goes to Bombay to find a job. There, he is seduced by money and materialism and must ultimately choose between the ideals of vidya (“truth”) and maya (“illusion”).
In contrast, Raj Kapoor’s character in Awara is a thief by trade. He is an awara, which in Hindi means “tramp” or “vagabond.” When we first meet Raj the vagabond, he is on trial for murder and pitted against the stern Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor). A new complication has surfaced in the proceedings: Raj has recently tried to assault the judge. To prove that he had just cause, his lover-lawyer, Rita (Nargis), begins to shed light on the situation.
Raghunath is a firm believer that children born to good parents will turn out good, and children born to bad parents will turn out bad. Raj, Raghunath says, is a bad child born of bad parents. He is wrong.
“Where, when, and why did you kick your wife out of your house?” Rita counters. Eventually, after hesitation, he begins to tell his tale, and the extended flashback begins.
Prithviraj’s physical character in Awara is everything that made the Kapoor patriarch great. He is tall, imposing, and has a booming baritone voice. In his prime, he was considered one of the most handsome men in Indian cinema, and his aging countenance still clings to that legacy here, with a regal nose, expressive eyes and Greek statuesque face.
Yet this character, a lawyer seeking to become a magistrate, is swayed by gossip and moved to commit an act that will leave him without a family. He believes his wife, kidnapped by Jagga the daku (K.N. Singh) months before, is pregnant with the infamous bandit’s son. Truth be told, she was with child before her kidnapping; therefore, the child in the womb is the lawyer’s. Raghunath, nonetheless, is driven to embarrassment and fury.
“Get out of here!” he roars at his wife, deep in labor one stormy night. He sentences his pregnant wife and unborn son to life on the streets.
Leela Raghunath (Leela Chitnis, who would go on to play character roles in several other successful films) is now solely responsible for her son Raj, whom she hopes pursues a career in law one day, just like his estranged father. Young Raju is played by an extraordinarily expressive young Shashi Kapoor, who also played the younger version of his older brother in Raj Kapoor’s debut film Aag.
Shashi’s performance as Raju is sometimes earnest, sometimes somber; sometimes smiling, sometimes teary-eyed. The boy has strong morals and convictions and only resorts to thievery when his mother is on the brink of starvation.
Meanwhile, the bandit Jagga has trailed Raju and Leela, watching his prediction years ago come true in real-time. Sentenced by Raghunath for a crime he did not commit, solely because he came from bad blood, Jagga saw Leela home unmolested with the hypothesis that this lawyer’s son, thought to be the child of a bandit, would become an awara, despite good breeding. And the transformation is complete when Jagga takes Raju under his wing, leading him into a life of crime.
That’s the thing with Raj Kapoor’s tramp character in Awara – all the bad things he’s doing, he’s doing to support his mother. Despite everything, he remains good at heart. But law enforcement only sees the shifty exterior – at least until Rita (Nargis), Raj’s childhood friend, comes back into the picture.
Raj and Rita fall in love, naturally. The Raj Kapoor-Nargis chemistry here is at its zenith; their scenes together sizzle the screen. From cutesy flirting to passionate anger (the slap heard ’round the world shocked me), their range of emotions as a couple is one of the high points of the film. And despite everything – even after Rita discovers Raj’s true criminal nature – they stay true to each other.
But the other chemistry of note in this film is when Raj and Prithviraj share the screen together. As real-life father and son, they apparently had a tumultuous relationship off-screen as well. And they bring that tension to Awara…oh, how they bring that tension. From furious standoffs to an emotional scene of apology and forgiveness near the end, their scenes together leave you breathless.
It all comes to a head when Jagga threatens to kill Leela and an enraged Raj stabs his once-mentor to death. He stands trial for that murder in a courtroom presided over by Raghunath. And when his mother is struck by a car on her way to the court to testify, she tells Raj on her deathbed that Raghunath is his father. Raj seeks revenge and goes to stab the judge, but his plans are foiled. This is where Rita must provide the evidence that Raj has had just cause for his actions.
Are men molded by nature or nurture? By circumstance, Raj became a tramp, yet his heart inside remained good. And Judge Raghunath, from a good family, performed the despicable act of throwing his pregnant wife out onto the dirty Bombay streets to keep his good name unsullied. Which one of these two, then, is the true awara?
What is the importance of a father to a healthy family dynamic? All throughout the film, Raj is looked down upon and taunted for having no father. He is only redeemed when Raghunath accepts him as his son. This patriarchal view lies in contrast to the later Mother India, where Nargis’ character is revered for raising her two sons on her own.
And can someone raised in crime become good? Certainly, if they try, says Awara. In the famous dream sequence, a beautiful Nargis is in heaven with the angels, while Raj suffers in hell with the demons. He finds his way to the clouds, where he is led by Nargis to paradise, only to be sent to hell again by the laughing, mocking presence of Jagga, wielding a knife. He wakes, sweating and crying, and hugs his mother tightly, exclaiming, “I want to be good!”
In the end, Raj is imprisoned only three years for Jagga’s murder, due to his circumstances. With luck, the three years will fly by. Rita will wait for him, and Raghunath has finally accepted the vagabond as his son. And as I watched the prison bars close on a smiling Raj, I slowly began to get the feeling that he’s never really been a criminal at heart, after all.