Awara’s unique subversion, the ‘angry young man’ & the Rathnam wager


Not too long after 1947 and at a time when the business of Independence (and of course Partition) is still unfinished comes Awara. It would be hard to think of any commercial film at any point in Bombay film history that outdoes this one in terms of its subversion. The film’s protagonist is abandoned by his father at a point which judging by the former’s age at the time of the film’s release must roughly have occurred in the late 1920s or slight after this. At the ‘stroke of the midnight hour’ therefore amidst the paeans to freedom there are all the vagabonds of India who have been deserted by the very generation that is now the chief beneficiary of this new country. The father in a sense disinherits his child because (owing to a plot twist) he suspects the paternity to not be his own (and there is a tribal angle here). Towards the end of the film the protagonist who now knows everything decides to murder his father but does not succeed. In the film’s final scene the father who has always tied criminality to genetics encounters his very own son (by this point he accepts his paternity) in the role of a criminal. The film ends on an impasse of sorts.

Prithviraj also represents the bourgeois bureaucratic order of the newly emergent nation-state that cancels out the greater ‘Independence’ promise of profound social upheaval and true liberation from class/caste struggles and so forth. His perspective testifies to an ‘older’ obsession with bloodlines, genealogical purity, and colonial obsession with legal frameworks. His class is that which historically transcended the pre-Independence/post-Independence divide, the very social grouping which stunted the true empowerment of the disenfranchised in a new nation that promised precisely this. It is this unresolved business of the 50s that is still very much a part of contemporary discourse and which in a rather sad irony has been completely sidelined by contemporary Hindi directors in their flight from history.

Paternal authority has very rarely been questioned in Hindi cinema and no film does it with more subversion than Awara. Trishul is the other film that comes to mind but even this film attempts closure towards the end. Reconciliation certainly comes about. Not so in Awara where the very essential questions the film raises remain open. What differentiates the two films is the mythic mode (GF has written eloquently on this) that allows Trishul a catharsis that is denied to Awara with its great reliance on social realism. In the mythic mode much as in politics lemonade can always be made out of lemons (!). Because even tragedy allows for epic moral or ‘character’ victories. No such allowance in any mode of realism. Raj Kapoor himself could not take Awara further. His next important film, Shree 420, indulges in a ‘softer’ realism that in the fashion of de Sica’s Miracle in Milan (this movie released the very same year as Awara) blends a visionary mode of realism with romance enabling the final mix to be of the order of a fairy tale. Awara remains Raj Kapoor’s greatest film and assuredly one of Indian cinema’s most audacious commercial ventures but it also perhaps heralds its own failure. Raj Kapoor could not return to his ‘site’ because it was very soon co-opted by the corporate-bureaucratic logic of the state and when a generation later revolution was once again in the air this great filmmaker’s instincts had turned considerably more conservative. He satisfied himself with critiquing a mode of ‘majority’ religiosity that might not have been out of place in a certain colonial discourse of British times! But this new period of social restlessness also introduced the ‘angry young man’.

Enormously useful as this last invention was and certainly very seminal it too never quite escaped the ‘romantic-mythic’ to offer possibly a truer homage to Awara’s more concrete questioning. That the ‘angry young man’ could eventually be neatly categorized in terms of ‘profession’ (waiter, coolie, taxi driver and so on) should not surprise anyone. This is again a more traditional Marxist opposition where the lumpen masses are involved in a face-off with more entrenched interests. The angry young man starts off in a zone of ambiguity. He displays a sense of angst about his framework but does not simply cross over to the other side. Films like Zanjeer and Deewar highlight this tension. Not so the later films where again not surprisingly the ‘professional’ ghettoization occurs simultaneously with the angry young man’s canonization as mass consumption icon. In a sense the Prithviraj of Awara once again held sway. The traditional opposition always benefits the existing order, it is only the complete overturning of the opposition itself that truly derails the former project. This of necessity involves ‘parricide’! Note how in Trishul this ‘Shiva-like’ angry young man (to take up GF’s suggestion) can do everything to destroy his father except actually killing him (even saving him from the financial ruin that he has himself brought about)! Another generation later there is a son murdering his father in Rang De Basanti but Mehra then very unfortunately chose to take back every gesture of his revolution (one might argue about its merits to begin with but Mehra himself sabotages everything).

It is the normalization of the angry young man’s revolution that unhinges him and makes him reappear in rather terrifying form in Agneepath. And it is this hint which Rathnam picks up in Yuva and presumably now in the upcoming Raavana. The last represents an extraordinary wager. The deconstructed mythic married to a stylized realism. This could add a remarkable chapter to the story begun with Awara if indeed Rathnam is upto the task. The angry young man’s cinema is ironically enough the compromise deal offered on Awara. Rathnam retread this space in the more uncompromising Yuva and the rather more compromising Guru. One hopes the Yuva space is opened up even more subversively in Raavana..

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7 Responses to “Awara’s unique subversion, the ‘angry young man’ & the Rathnam wager”

  1. This was interesting. I especially echo your final sentiment here on what I hope Raavana will represent. It’s tricky to go into it with this sense and not feel like the specific myth (and here I’m talking about the Hindu text not the angry young man) has been manufactured and “co-opted” a few times before, but in terms of a mainstream cinema attempt on this scale, and with the angry young man icon you touch on, there’s no doubt that this is a “retread” that’s also something of a first step.

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  2. A fine fine piece Satyam, Have not seen Awara for a long long time. I would say since, those times when I used to go watch the reruns. I am definitely revisting it in this coming week sometime. (If time permits).

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  3. Kash…we are doing all this for that t-shirt. 😉
    LOL..just kidding.

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  4. Oh crap, Forgot about it..and I actually saw that cousin of mine yesterday..no worries..I see him again on friday..will let you guys know then..sorry 😦

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  5. Hello Satyam,
    Very interesting take on Awaara and related structures centrering around the influence of the father figure in Hindi cinema. Indeed, as you say, not many films have dared question it to the point that the paternal figure is really superseded by that of the son. Except when questions of marital choice come into play of course, because then it is practically ALL hindi movies which show a befuddled father defending an outdated conception of love and social order which the next generation questions. And sometimes goes back to subtly reinstating what Daddy had in mind!
    I enjoyed your point on the angry young men movement stemming from the uprooting of the fatherly figure which Prithviraj stands for, and yet copying it in its social and economic dimensions. You’re right, perhaps there has been a “normalization of the angry young man’s revolution”, all the more so as in some aspects of modern-day India, the forces of tradition are gaining strength.
    If you don’t mind, I’ll add a link to your review at the end of my own!
    Thanks.

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