Before starting his acting career, Raj Kapoor assisted Kidar Sharma as a filmmaker, but once his love for acting had inspired him, he started appearing more prominently on the floors of film studios. An annoyed Kidar Sharma is said to have slapped Raj Kapoor in public view. Astonished and hurt, Raj Kapoor looked at his mentor with tears rolling down his cheeks. So impressed was the sensitive director that the next day Kapoor was cast as a leading man in Neel Kamal.
Much has been said and written about Raj Kapoor the showman, director and editor, but his achievements as an actor have never really received due recognition. In the grand trio of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, Dilip was the ultimate method actor, Raj, the born natural and Dev, the grand stylist. Raj Kapoor was not versatile like Ashok or Dilip Kumar, but he was passionate and spontaneous in his performances. Aware that he was not cut out for all kinds of roles, he mastered the art of tragic-comedy. Inspired by Sir Charles Chaplin, Raj Kapoor was a master at mingling laughter with tears. He ably adapted himself as Raju, the vanguard of the oppressed proletariat who emerges as the eventual winner. Awara, Shree 420, Anari, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Baheti Hai and Mera Naam Joker saw Raj Kapoor play the eternal vagabond.
Jagte Raho (1956), directed by Shambhu Mitra and Amar Mitra, saw Kapoor climb new and somewhat histrionic heights. The film was made in both, Hindi and Bengali, and it went on to win many coveted awards at the Moscow Film Festival. In the film’s climax, Raj Kapoor embraces child artist Daisy Irani, and breaks down while exclaiming, “Munni main chor nahin hoon.” The tears the actor shed were his own and that tragic scene proves to be a lesson in art for even the most contemporary of actors.
Even though Raj Kapoor never really looked the part of the frail Hiraman in Teesri Kasam, he compensated for looks by delivering a legendary performance. After having watched Teesri Kasam, Satyajit Ray wondered why Kapoor did not concentrate more on acting since he had more than plenty to offer in that department. In the early 70s, it was Raj Kapoor who shifted most gracefully to playing more mature characters in films such as Kal Aaj Aur Kal, Gopichand Jasoos, Vakil Babu and Dharam Karam. No one will perhaps ever be able to forget Kapoor’s expressions on screen, all of which expressed profound pathos with a rare classism.
Raj Kapoor claimed to have felt suffocated performing the roles of rich and urbanite men who had not experienced and loved poverty. He was amongst the first to congratulate Dilip Kumar for Ganga Jamuna, Dev Anand for Guide and Guru Dutt for Saheb Biwi Gulam. He also never shied away from encouraging upcoming actors like Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar and Rajesh Khanna and helped them perform to the best of their abilities. He did feel dejected when his films Jagte Raho, Teesri Kasam and Mera Naam Joker flopped, but it should be noted that even 25 years after his death, countless commoners in India and Russia still identify themselves with Kapoor. Something about him seems to have remained immortal.
Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based freelancer The views expressed by the author are personal