The Common Man on Screen: How Raj Kapoor Championed the Indian Proletariat

Chaplin's heir, Nargis' partner, commonman's hero, Raj Kapoor's acting legacy endures

Raj Kapoor disagreed with how director Basu Bhattacharya wanted him to react to Waheeda Rehman’s lip-synching, Aa Aa Bhi Ja in Teesri Kasam. He asked cinematographer Subrata Mitra who agreed with him. The result was an inimitable blank face by Raj Kapoor which eclipsed Waheeda Rehman’s subtle acting and dance nuances. It was the same in EK Dil Sau Afsane. Raj Kapoor learnt Indian classical dancing and matched Waheeda Rehman in every step during the song sequence, Suno Ji Suno.

To date, no actress could ever overshadow Raj Kapoor’s acting skills. If Ashok Kumar was effortless and versatile, Dilip Kumar intense and method, Dev Anand charming and fluid, and Raj Kapoor was a born actor. He stole the show with his instincts, passion and excellent sense of timing. Raj Kapoor mastered the art of serio comedy like no other actor of his era did. As Satyajit Ray and V Shantaram rightly said, Raj Kapoor was a better actor than a director. Guru Dutt improved his acting skills under his direction.

Though he was a truly good director, Raj Kapoor never allowed the actor in him to overrule his directional abilities. When working with other directors he never interfered in their working styles. He was selective in choosing films and never had the star hangover of Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. Raj Kapoor loved to portray the common man on screen as the vanguard of the Indian proletariat. His idol was Charles Chaplin.

The actor understood he could not match his two illustrious contemporaries Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand in romancing heroines. He and Nargis were a made-for-each-other pair whose popularity in Russia, China and Eastern Europe remains unchallenged. Nutan, Mala Sinha, Vyjayantimala and Padmini were the other actresses, his vibes were well.

His inborn sense of rhythm helped him to lip songs well. Penned mainly by Shailendra and Hasrat Jaipuri, tuned superbly by Shankar Jaikishan, Raj Kapoor lipped countless numbers rendered by Mukesh and Manna Dey. Though Mohd Rafi and Kishore Kumar sang for him, but they did not gel with Raj Kapoor’s acting style. The showman had an inborn sense of music and could play the piano, piano accordion and tabla well. An old picture did show Raj Kapoor sitting with young Bappi Lahiri on his lap, playing the tabla as the child’s father composer Aparesh Lahiri looked with astonishment.

There is a rarely known anecdote. Director S Banerjee was keen to focus the movie camera on his face during the shooting of Parvarish. Mala Sinha the debutant heroine of Parvarish protested as she wanted scope to perform emotional scenes. Raj Kapoor who slept till late in the morning, arrived later on the sets. He immediately requested S Banerjee not to give unnecessary footage to him and have the camera take close ups of Mala Sinha.

No wonder during the song sequence Dost Dost Na Raha in Sangam, Raj Kapoor directed cameraman Radhu Karmakar to concentrate more on tight close shots of Rajendra Kumar and Vyjayantimala. the actor’s most memorable performance was in Jagte Raho directed by Shambhu Mitra and Arnar Maitra. As he emoted in front of child artist Daisy Irani in the climax crying, “Hum Chor Nahi Hai Munni ” he proved he can match tragedian Dilip Kumar.

The turmoil on the actor’s face in Gopinath, the laughter and tears of Anari and the internal traumas of the joker in Mera Naam Joker are performances which only Raj Kapoor could deliver. After Mera Naam Joker flopped he intelligently switched over to mature characters. There were certainly touches of brilliance in acting in Dharam KaramKhan Dost and Abdullah. It is a pity the audience did not get to see much of Raj Kapoor as a parallel actor.

Ashok Kumar simply outclassed Raj Kapoor in Bewafa with his natural performance. Raj Kapoor respected Motilal very much and knew he could never surpass the maestro in Jagte Raho and Anari. So he intelligently surrendered to the superior Motilal. In Andaz, his passionate and intense performance proved a perfect foil to the method king Dilip Kumar’s calculated performance. 

Suchitra Sen who declined an offer to work with the filmmaker did confess to her photographer Dhiren Deb it was a challenge for any actress to react to Raj Kapoor’s blank face as he would surely win. Meena Kumari also agreed that be it Sharada or Char Dil Char Rahe, Raj Kapoor simply scored with facial expressions which only an actor with a plastic face could. 

Ranjan Das Gupta

is a Kolkata-based independent journalist. He has been doing freelance work for more than 3 decades and writes on arts & culture, cinema, politics, healthcare and education

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