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Friday, 19 November 2010

The Photograph as Conscience

I saw Awara last week, the classic neo-realist (sort of) Hindi film directed by Raj Kapoor and starring both Kapoor and the incomparable Nargis. It's one of the greats, a Bollywood template, a good-mum/bad-dad separation film where Raj Kapoor plays Raju, the son who never knows his father, Judge Raghunath - this is because Judge Raghunath is a cruel, hard-hearted man of prejudice who believes one is born to one's fate - born to a thief, you die a thief. One day, Jagga ( who the judge once wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit - causing him to subsequently turn to crime ), a local bandit, decides to prove the Judge prejudice's wrong. He kidnaps the Judge's wife, Leela, then releases her. Leela is pregnant and the Judge believes that she is pregnant with Jagga's child so he kicks her out of the house as she is giving birth - Raju is literally born into the gutter...

Later in the film, an impoverished but honest Raju makes friends with Rita, a wealthy classmate. But when Raju's mother falls ill and can't pay Raju's school fees, Raju leaves school and Rita behind. He is picked up by Jagga who turns him to crime. All through the movie, Raju has an old picture of Rita to perk him up when he feels down, to show him the way, to show a life different to the one of crime and immorality he is leading. And when Raju is reunited with Rita towards the end of the movie, and as it races to its gripping climax (involving the Judge, Leela, Rita and Raju), the picture acts as conscience, witness and memory. It is the reminder of an identity that Raju has apparently lost. Awara is a wonderful condemnation of prejudice, corruption and greed, and its use of the picture, a memento mori of a lost soul is profound, moving and convincing.

And the dream sequence! Bali finds its way into the dance sequences here, look out for the Kecak dance, the invention of the Walter Spies, a Dutch artist (who the film's director had met on a trip to Bali). So we get Hinduism reinvented four ways, with a Dutch, colonialist and Balinese touch, but coming back to India through the imagination of Raj Kapoor and his choreographers. It's oriental Orientalism, the re-referencing and self-referencing tying everybody up in all kinds of Bombay knots. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

(And some better-informed ideas on the dance influences here)

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