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The Eternal Poet: Raj Kapoor & the Golden Age of Indian Cinema

July 19, 2012 - August 11, 2012

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The man who launched a thousand films, the actor/director/producer Raj Kapoor is one of the most influential figures in the history of Indian cinema, responsible for a series of box-office hits in the late forties and early fifties that helped define the appeal—and charted the future—of commercial filmmaking in that country. Specifically Indian, yet universal in theme, his slickly polished films offered enough people-power populism and old-fashioned glamour to become successes across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the Middle East, and China.

Born into a family of stage and screen artists—his father, Prithviraj, was a famed theater star who later turned to film—Kapoor channeled the sturdy charm of Clark Gable, the underdog appeal of Charlie Chaplin, and the burning intensity of a young Orson Welles, though no Western stars could match the mournful passion he brought to his best roles. “You talk like an ancient poet,” one character says to another in Barsaat (1949); idiosyncratically out of step with the times, many of Kapoor’s performances seemed drawn more from the doomed romanticism of Byron or Baudelaire than cinema.

At once glossy and realist, slapstick and sorrowful, the juxtapositions of Kapoor’s delirious films are like few that Western viewers have experienced. Epic musical numbers, noirish deep-focus cinematography, and insanely elaborate sets share center stage with paeans to the homeless, cries against the class system, and pleas for social mobility, with scripts (many written by the socialist-realist legend K.A. Abbas) seemingly drawn from Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, then filtered through Frank Capra and Busby Berkeley. The films’ aesthetics also changed with the times, from the gorgeous German expressionism of Aag (1948), to the crisp portraiture of Barsaat (1949), to the bright Technicolor madness of Bobby (1973).

As director and producer, Kapoor helped popularize many of the tropes that make up commercial Indian cinema, or “Bollywood,” today. This series offers a chance to see not only the power of “The Great Showman” (as Kapoor was called), but also the roots—and arguably the height—of popular Indian cinema.

Jason Sanders, Film Notes Writer

Thursday, July 19, 2012
7:00 p.m. Barsaat
Raj Kapoor (India, 1949). New 35mm print! Two city friends (Raj Kapoor, Premnath) find country lovers in Kapoor’s first megahit, whose almost physically sensual cinematography echoes the deep-focus splendor of Citizen Kane and the iconic portraitures of silent-era Murnau. (171 mins)

Saturday, July 21, 2012
8:15 p.m. Aag
Raj Kapoor (India, 1948). New 35mm print! Few Hollywood melodramas are as perversely aflame with thwarted love as Kapoor’s intense directorial debut, which adds a surprising dose of noir to its tale of youthful idealists fighting the bleakness of the modern world. (138 mins)

Thursday, July 26, 2012
7:00 p.m. Boot Polish
Prakash Arora, Raj Kapoor (India, 1954). New 35mm print! One of Indian cinema’s first Western successes and a major influence on films like Salaam, Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire, Boot Polish combines Italian neorealism with Victor Hugo-like flourishes and pointed social (and socialist) commentary in its tale of two orphans on the streets. (149 mins)

Saturday, July 28, 2012
7:45 p.m. Awaara
Raj Kapoor (India, 1951). New 35mm print! Kapoor and Nargis affirmed their status as one of Indian cinema’s greatest couples in this evergreen classic of Chaplinesque comedy and tragedy, social commentary, swooning romance, and timeless musical sequences and set pieces. (193 mins)

Saturday, August 4, 2012
8:00 p.m. Shree 420
Raj Kapoor (India, 1955). New 35mm print! A country hick finds honesty won’t get him far in the city in Kapoor’s delirious underdog tale, informed in equal parts by India’s post-Partition urban realities and Frank Capra’s joyful thirties comedies, and boasting more Kapoor/Nargis charisma. Shankar-Jaikeshen’s soundtrack includes several immortal songs. (169 mins)

Saturday, August 11, 2012
8:00 p.m. Bobby
Raj Kapoor (India, 1973). New 35mm print! Raj Kapoor hit the seventies swinging with this candy-colored tribute to the bell-bottomed new generation, which became one of India’s biggest hits and launched not only the careers of his baby-faced son, Rishi, and the lovely Dimple Kapadia as two star-crossed young lovers, but also an entirely new genre of teen-focused films. (168 mins)

Copresented by 3rd i Films, which hosts the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. Consponsored by the Center for South Asia Studies at UC Berkeley. Series organized for BAM/PFA by Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby. Thanks to TIFF Cinematheque for orchestrating this international touring series featuring new 35mm prints. We are particularly grateful to Noah Cowan, Brad Deane, and Aliza Ma at TIFF Cinematheque for their assistance.