Beyond Ram and Ravana: Random Blather on Awara’s Ramayana connection

On recently revisiting several of Raj Kapoor’s works I was struck by the opening moment tagged to the front of a number of RK Films’ productions. The grand patriarch, Prithviraj Kapoor, prays to a Shiva Lingam with the “Om Namashivaiaa” chant vibrating over the image.

The mythological aura of this moment feels especially relevant with regard to Awara, the seminal Raj Kapoor film and perhaps the father of Indian mainstream movies in a foundational sense. A thought that occurred to me (and something briefly touched upon in this piece on the movie) was that Awara picks up where the Ramayana ends. The film’s “prologue” has Prithviraj Kapoor—playing Judge Raghunath—facing a terrific reversal in which he stands trial at an attempted murder case where he is actually supposed to be the victim and Raj Kapoor the accused. Raghunath’s  ward, a lawyer played superbly by Nargis, defends Raj Kapoor and  confronts the gargoyle-like Raghunath (the regretful and brooding Ram in this film) for years ago expelling from his household his very own “Sita”, a wife he believes to have been raped and impregnated with a child he imagines to be the spawn of the “Ravana” of the story, here in the form of Jagga, a vengeful bandit. So it is not Sita who is on trial in Awara’s Ramayana commentary, nor even the perceived “seed” of Ravana (Raj Kapoor) but rather Ram himself, who here, in this moment, becomes “the accused” for his iconically faithless gesture.

The film is really an extended flashback that emerges out of this prologue moment which questions “Ram” and which finds resolution with a coda showing Raghunath as he faces a grand and heartbreaking revelation—that by shunning his Sita, he has secured the transformation of his son into exactly the thing he detests most—a Ravana-like criminal. Throughout the film’s extended flashback, which explains Raj Kapoor and Nargis’ romance, Prithviraj Kapoor emerges from time to time in a prolonged attempt to somewhat obsessively play out the Ramayana narrative all over again—this time by protecting a new Sita (Nargis, aptly named Rita) from what he sees as a new Ravana (Raj Kapoor, raised by his mother and an unwitting disciple of Jagga, the original Ravana in the film’s universe ). This is Ram as a snarky and aging soldier, still fighting the same fight, still enacting the same drama even as all the players have moved on or shifted into younger incarnations.

Kapoor’s visual genius is in full display with this film. There are gestures here that might be aptly referred to as Eisensteinian. Especially interesting in this regard are a couple of intriguing shots that “mirror” at certain junctures in the narrative. The first occurs in the now often-talked about (and rightly so) dream sequence. The whole moment represents a movement between heaven and hell as Raj Kapoor is torn between (speaking in context) Lanka and Ayodhya. In the hell that Jagga rules over,  a pair of massive demon-hands approach Raj Kapoor to take grasp of his contested soul.  The enormous hands are placed in the foreground, flanking both ends of the frame, extending into the frame, towards  Kapoor, who writhes between them as he backs away in fear, the flames lashing out furiously around him.

This framing is later reused towards the end of the film in two different instances. The first is an inversion or a “response” on the part of Raj Kapoor’s character to the earlier “demon hands” shot. Raj Kapoor’s character is an everyman who is ever torn between Ram and Ravana. In a key moment in which he finally confronts Jagga-as-Ravana, Raj Kapoor’s tramp vanquishes him. And as Ravana dies, he looks up at the man who has killed him, and he raises his hands in a gesture that instantly mirrors that of the demon in Raj Kapoor’s dream. We see the hands come up, trying to assume the same gesture of control, but ultimately failing. Down to the scowl on the man’s face, and the lighting scheme, (an arc of light across the frame) this image is meant to mark the earlier dream as prophecy.

With Ravana vanquished, the Awara everyman should now be all set to choose and embrace Ram, and this might be assumed to occur on dramatic terms but in an extraordinary and subversive gesture, Kapoor cradles the narrative “reunion” with a visual rejection on the part of the everyman. And he does so by using the framing device for the demon(s)–only now he places Prithviraj’s aged “Ram” in the hot seat. The old man has reached down to the cavernous domain of Lanka (the prison where Raj Kapoor has been jailed) and his arms extend to his now acknowledged son, grasping for a reunion, grasping for acceptance and perhaps absolution. But Raj Kapoor’s everyman has his back turned to this old world, approaching a window that illuminates the background, (the lighting here again parallels the two previous shots) and our gaze is drawn to this progression, this act of moving forward while leaving behind the demons of the past—whether that demon’s name is Ravana or Ram.


27 Responses to “Beyond Ram and Ravana: Random Blather on Awara’s Ramayana connection”

  1. What an extraordinary piece this is GF! Easily one of your most insightful. You have become the canonical interpreter of mythic codes in many of your pieces but this surpasses them all. Extremely illuminating, extremely timely given that we have a Raavan on our hands at the moment (!). This piece was a joy to read in every sense.

    Ram will have always birthed Raavan.. orthodoxy right away creates its outlaw other..


    • Thanks Satyam! That’s very (too) generous. The piece was certainly colored by the Raavan(s) in the air these days.


  2. “… Awara, the seminal Raj Kapoor film and perhaps the father of Indian mainstream movies in a foundational sense”

    this seems wholly correct…


  3. This piece will be a great hit with the,,
    sorry in advance- Aawaraa hooon…………


  4. A very interesting and stimulating piece, GF — it suggests a dimension to Awaara (one of my all-time favorite films) that had never occurred to me. Interesting to keep in mind — and perhaps fitting — that Raavana himself is not orthodoxy’s “other”, he is who he is, a devotee of Lord Shiva…


  5. what the hell was that gf(have only read initial paras..)… truly ubnbelievable!!… i will confess i havent seen awara.. but this piece of urs has ensured i will watch it asap.. i will get back with more later.. bcoz i thought there are spoilers below after initial paras.. so if not then i shall continue.. and watch the movie or i will get back later..

    but surely m watching awara.. soon didnt knew it was court drama.. i thought it was another love story.. only..


  6. Thanks Q. And that’s a good point re: the otherness of Ravana.

    Rooney – thanks. And I second Satyam here. Awara is required viewing for Hindi cinema watchers. I’d definitely recommend that you revisit the film. I’ve been going back through Raj Kapoor’s works and the entire experience has been enlightening.


  7. it’s enlightening, until it gets depressing!


    • Depressing because of Kapoor’s subject matter? His later films? Or because everyone else these days pales so much in comparison? All of the above maybe.


  8. alex adams Says:

    ” mean, to watch ram teri ganga maili after watching awaara is pretty f!@#$#@ depressing.”
    Speaking of awaara and ram-teri in the same breath is a bit misleading…
    ram-teri was a pretty regressive film (the little i remember of it)-although even in this film, music was good.
    also , as far as i remember , almost EVERY male who APPEARED on screen (including the hero) had “evil intentions -subtle or overt” towards mandakini-lol.
    to her credit, mandakini “performed’ aguably the most famous waterfall scene n bollywood history.
    not sure, but is she now related in some way to dawood ibrahim-lol.
    A bit unrelated- but contrary to what many feel, i have not seen much in ranbir kapoor till now ( except briefly in rocket-singh) which proves his obvio illustrious genes in this field. i would have expected much better given he has raj kapoor in his genes-maybe thi i a it harsh-maybe his best is yet to come-i am just talking about the impresions till now.


    • I quite like Ranbir though the dearth of younger actors who are notable in that generation doesn’t really make this much of a declaration. I for example think Kunal Khemu is more promising than a number of guys, but short of Ranbir, and maybe Imran (the latter is ok but a bit stiff) there’s not too many people to talk about.


      • The sad thing is that because a guy like Kunal Khemu lacks the genealogy, he is always relegated to small film-stuff. As Karan Johar said with respect to Ranbir, “he has the looks, he has the acting ability, most importantly he has the genes”. a true WTF moment.


      • I think in many ways the problem with contemporary Bollywood is less the ‘bad’ actor and more the generic one. There weren’t necessarily better actors in older eras but they were certainly distinctive (for better or for worse). Tamil cinema still doesn’t have this problem. Most of the well known stars have very distinct identities. This is the way it once was in Bombay. Today, especially among the men, they tend to act in very similar fashion. Coupled with the fact that Bollywood has mostly no use for ‘gesturality’ anymore it effaces the distinctions even more. So while stars undoubtedly ‘look’ different for obvious reasons they produce ‘sameness’ on screen. One actor might then be judged superior or inferior to another but they do things the same way. And it is hard today to develop a signature when the consumption model and the industry’s own deconstruction of its tradition forces these very stars to just ‘conform’. So even when one spots competence its of a very boring sort that eventually leaves no impression in the mind. Shahid Kapoor would probably be exhibit A for everything I’m trying to say here. His competence is in direct proportion to his utter lack of individuality.


        • Even where they have individuality they try and efface it. Shahid Kapoor used to be more distinctive before he decided he too needed to bulk up, wax his chest (or look like he’s done so), a la Hrithik, salman, etc. and Ranbir does the same thing in a Bachna Ae Haseeno music video. With the actresses, the problem is even worse.


        • Absolutely right on every count here. There is just no distinction these days. Everyone seems assimilated to a certain model to varying degrees.


  9. Rajesh Says:

    Superb piece GF. Never seen ‘Awara’. Will get to it. This site is making me watch many good ones that I had missed ( like Iruvar, Kannathil Muthamittal, Pasanga ( thanks to Q) and lot more )..Satyam you should open a permanent sidebar item as some movie recommended by you or list your favs.


  10. Hello GF,
    I tried earlier to write something about this interesting article on Awaara, and I believe it didn’t get recorded. So just to say that I was quite interested in your description of the movie as an enactment of a continuation of Ramayana, and in the hands encroachement motif, to represent evil approaching “everyman”, an evil which comes close to destroying him, but he manages to escape.
    Regards, yves


  11. Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara’ in ‘Time’ magazine’s 100 greatest films

    Raj Kapoor’s Awaara has been included in Time magazine’s list of All-TIME 100 greatest films.

    The 1951 story of a vagabond, which also stars Nargis Dutt, is among 20 new entries added to the list.

    Time critic Richard Corliss described Raj Kapoor as “the great star-auteur of India’s postcolonial golden age of movies – Cary Grant and Cecil B DeMille in one handsome package”.

    He went on: “The ’50s films he headlined and directed became huge hits, not just in his newly-freed homeland, but also across the Arab crescent from Indonesia to North Africa.

    “And, of course, it’s a musical, whose main song ‘Awaara Hoon’, by the famed Shanker-Jaikishan duo, soared to the top of the pop charts in India, China and the former USSR,” Corliss concluded.

    Raj Kapoor, who modelled his screen persona on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, was 26 years old when he filmed Awaara.

    The original All-TIME 100 list published in 2005 included Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa.

    Bollywood composer AR Rahman’s score for Mani Ratnam’s Roja was also among the 10 Best Soundtracks.

    Last week, Time magazine ranked director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 film Devdas eighth among the ten greatest movies of the millennium.

    Raj Kapoor was honoured at the 2011 IIFA awards.


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