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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 11, February 28, 2009

Raj Kapoor: Man of the Masses

Monday 2 March 2009, by Amita Malik



Veteran broadcaster and distinguished film critic Amita Malik, 88, passed away in NOIDA’s Kailash Hospital on February 20 after a brief illness.
Born in Guwahati in 1921, she joined the All India Radio as a casual staffer in Lucknow and moved to New Delhi as a permanent employee in 1946.
From the mid-fifties she was the film critic for The Statesman. In fact she was one of the first Indian film critics of international standing. She wrote on film and media for all the major national dailies.

She had interviewed such personalities in the film world as Satyajit Ray, Marlon Brando, David Niven and Ingmar Bergman. She was on the National Film Awards jury several times and served in the international film critics’ jury more than once. She wrote on the Bangladesh war a book, The Year of the Vulture (1972); in 1999, her autobiography, Amita, No Holds Barred, came out.

As Shailaja Bajpai has written in The Indian Express,
- “Her writing style was acerbic, frank to a fault... She suffered fools badly and never hesitated, saying or writing so. She was witty, well-informed and loved a joust more than anything else. This won her many admirers but critics too.”

Her husband, Iqbal Malik of the AIR, predeceased her several years ago.
She was close to N.C. and complained to this writer as to why he did not ask her to write on the Mainstream founder on the latter’s tenth death anniversary last June; she promised to write a piece on N.C. thereafter but somehow that did not materialise. She had, however, written a moving tribute after N.C.‘s death in The Hindustan Times (it was subsequently reproduced in this journal).

More than 20 years ago, when the legendary Raj Kapoor passed away on June 2, 1988 this writer requested her to write on the man and his work as she had seen him from close range and had interacted with him. As a token of our tribute to her abiding memory we reproduce that piece which appeared in this journal’s June 11, 1988 issue. S.C.)]

It was in the plane to Cairo from Damascus. I had missed my first flight through sheer carelessness of the airline and I slumped down in the nearest seat, wishing my friends had not gone ahead on the earlier flight. I had not even fastened my seat belt when the young Arab boy started off what was to become familiar patter in the Arab world: “Do you know Raj Kapoor? Nargis? Vyjayanthimala? 420? Awara? Mera Joota Hai Japani?” Since I really could not reply “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”, I merely replied “yes”, and left it at that.

It was the same when I went earlier and later to the East European countries. In Bulgaria they had got as far as Bobby the last time I was there. In Moscow, where I was twice at the film festival with him, there was a little function in his honour at the little auditorium of the vast hotel Rossiya. After the welcoming speech by a Soviet film man Raj Kapoor had to reply. It was not a very large gathering, I should say about a hundred people. But they were all behaving like eager teenagers with a matinee idol. After Raj had made a neat little speech about his long associations with the Russians, he laid his hand on his heart and said “I love you” in Russian. It brought the house down.

And do you know, I think that was one of the secrets of his success:

he really loved them, human beings in every country, particularly the underdog. He might have glamourised or exaggerated their joys and sorrows in his films, but he really went to the heart of the matter. His heart, in its own way, bled for the underprivileged. He might have borrowed from Chaplin and The Tramp, he might have borrowed from the Italian neo-realists, but his dil (heart), in the words of the song which had made him immortal, was really Hindustani.

It was during that same trip to Moscow that I cornered Raj one day and asked: “Why do you think the Russians love your films so much? After all, Awara was made years ago and so was Shri 420. But they still love to see them and sing their songs.”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” he replied and one of the joys of talking to him was the precision, the elegance of language with which he articulated his thoughts: “Europe had just been through a horrible war and life was very hard for them. Their women had had a terrible time, and they had become less than feminine, fighting to survive. Their post-war films were all about the war and their struggle and did not allow them to escape. Then along came my films, about lovable individuals, about romance, about young love, and lovely innocent young women and young men who loved them. To them my films were Swan Lake and Giselle rolled into one. It brought joy, romance and youthful hope into their lives.”

I went to China twice, once in the late fifties in a delegation led by his illustrious father Prithviraj Kapoor. The Chinese are a polite people and clapped heartily every time he appeared to speak. But once word got around that he was Raj Kapoor’s father, the applause doubled.

AND yet, beneath that fabled showmanship and adoration I think there was a second Raj Kapoor, quite different to his usual roles. Of the films made by him the one which I like best is Mera Naam Joker. Not that part in which he played but the first one, about that little fat boy in a school in Simla who fell in love with his teacher. It was one of his own sons, and the teacher was played with demure elegance by Simi Garewal. It was a sensitive, tender job, made by the father of three sons who had been through puppy love himself. It was a perfect film.

To my mind, his best performance, because the most difficult—for Raj Kapoor to do a film without any dialogue was surely a tremendous feat—was Jagte Raho. Here he had no directorial responsibility and his performance was controlled, and it was really controlled, by the famed Bengali stage director, Sombhu Mitra. It was, this time, a tender and loving performance. Again about an underprivileged and innocent man who is hounded as a thief merely because he is looking for a glass of water in a block of flats. I believe that Raj himself once said that that was the performance he looked on as his best. And he had hoped he would do some more roles like that.

There were many Raj Kapoors. But to me, he will always remain the hero of Jagte Raho. For that is when he proved that he was not merely a showman, but also a superb and highly professional actor.

(Mainstream, June 11, 1988)

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