Raj Kapoor: ‘I dream cinema, I breathe cinema and I live cinema’

An excerpt from a compilation of writings by and about the legendary actor and filmmaker.

Raj Kapoor The One and Only Showman is an updated version of a photo book published in the late 1980s on the legendary actor, director and producer by his daughter, Ritu Nanda, and Raj Kapoor (2002). Although both books have been written in Kapoor’s voice, it was actually compiled by Nanda. In the preface, Nanda explains that she felt intimidated about writing her father’s biography, and prayed to the saint Sai Baba for advice: “In the holy book Sai Satchitra, the author addresses Baba in the very first chapter: ‘How can I write a book about you? You are God and I am a mere human being!’ Sai Baba appears to him and says, ‘You write and I will write through you.’

The latest version, presented by Nanda, is described as “both an autobiography and a biography”. It includes a compilation of Kapoor’s thoughts and words and contributions by family members, friends and collaborators. In edited excerpts, Kapoor shares his perspective on cinema and his working style.

I had to learn a lot to know cinema. One was that editing, montage, is one of the most important things one must know if one wants to become a man of cinema.

You create the rhythm within yourself. Footage is what teaches you rhythm. A foot extra can ruin a scene and a foot less would also be as damaging. It’s really a very creative process. Films are made on the writing table and the editing table; the rest is mere jugglery. I don’t think I have done as much for any other film of mine as I did for Prem Rog. The story was complete but the screenplay was written over a period of probably a year or so, and you cannot be precise about the length of a film. You may exceed and I have always exceeded.

For instance, you have this big set for Prem Rog and when you enter the set for the first time everything is new because we do not have the system of having models prepared, making a scenario, preplanning camera movements, cuts. It is as if the whole thing unfolds in front of you for the very first time, and you start thinking, how is this to be transposed to celluloid? The very first shot I take is one showing the entire topography. The whole thing is fresh and new and you want to show, well, here is the staircase, here’s the portico, here are the arches, these are the pillars, this is the veranda and from here a person comes down the staircase and walks through the portico and then he confronts a character and speaks.

Later, when you have shot the film and are nearer its completion, you edit the shot in the context of the previous scene and the subsequent scenes and you find that this length of shot, forty or fifty feet, is not necessary. The set has been repeated so many times through the film that people have gradually become aware of what is where, whether this is the first floor or the second floor or the kitchen. So, that long first shot was unnecessary. I am at this very stage of Prem Rog now, where I am trying to prune and largely I have done it, but it is a very, very painful thing, especially if you also happen to be the producer of the film, because you have unnecessarily spent so much time and labour and money. I keep telling myself: ‘You idiot, Raj Kapoor, you will never learn, you always overdo it!’

The influence of neo-realism

My early films Aag, Barsaat and Awara were influenced by the foreign films I saw. Mostly by the three Italians who had visited the 1952 film festival in Bombay: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini. They were the pioneers of the neorealism movement in Italy. I was tremendously moved by De Sica’s films, especially Miracle in Milan, Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. Zavattini was De Sica’s screenplay writer and I had long chats with him. Frank Capra was also in India for the festival and I had long talks with him too. The Capra films, It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, influenced me too. I was also an admirer of Cecil B. DeMille, I saw all his films, but the ones that impressed me most were The Ten Commandments, Reap the Wild Wind and The Greatest Show on Earth.

De Sica and Zavattini brought to the screen what they saw and felt. Something real. Slices of life. In an American film, you could never see a little boy piddling. In Bicycle Thieves the boy piddles and the father waits on the side of the road with his bicycle ... it is so simple. It is so real. However, the most effective part of the whole movement was the allegories that were part of the films. That was very important. The other thing was coming out of the four walls of the studio and making films outdoors. Many of these directors told me, ‘How lucky you are! In India, you have the sun shining all the year round, why do you shoot inside a studio? With such brilliant light outside, why do you shoot with artificial landscapes? We work in the studios only when it is necessary.’

Raj Kapoor. Courtesy Ritu Nanda.
Raj Kapoor. Courtesy Ritu Nanda.

Director’s special

I fundamentally believe that film art is nobody’s art except the film-maker’s, the director’s art. The music director sees one part of the film, the writer has his part, and the art director has his. The complete thing is only in the mind of the director. And the director is also a human being, susceptible to all kinds of moods, problems—a fight with the wife at home, children going to school and being knocked down by a car or something, or it’s one of those days when the actor is late, when the actress says she didn’t get her gown in time and so on and so forth. You keep your cool and get on with the job. Sometimes you are successful, sometimes you are not.

An artiste is one who has all the qualities of politeness, softness and the ability to attract the love of others, and does any work as his own. If you can become an artiste loved by all, there cannot be a greater artiste than you. Another thing I have learnt is never to make anything you don’t believe in. I have made films that I am convinced about, that I believe in. It has taken me a lot of time searching for scripts, or sometimes I have had scripts but I have not made them till I got the right people, for instance, Sangam. And there have been scripts that have just come my way, like Awara, Shree 420, Jagte Raho and so forth.

Shree 420 (1955).
Shree 420 (1955).

Sometimes I am offered films or scripts that are supposed to be box-office material, but I have never been enamoured by them. Not that my films have not been popular or box-office hits; perhaps they have been much more than all the others put together. Nevertheless, what convinces me is the human value in a script.

So, my life is work, and my work is cinema. I dream cinema, I breathe cinema and I live cinema. I am just a simple man. I don’t claim that I have any academic qualification, except that I have been quite aware of what is around me and hence have got to know a little bit of human philosophy and human kindness and compassion and that is probably what has given birth to the clown in me, and that clown, even at the cost of tears, tries to make everybody happy. For I believe that every human being has a beautiful self, which is the clown.

Cinema is one of the most effective forms of mass media and can touch millions because it is audio and visual at the same time. It gets you thinking and can trigger emotions. All films, irrespective of their language, have a universal appeal. The message transmitted through them reaches the hearts of the people. Films in Russian or Turkish or Pakistani have no difference. Whether American or Russian, a mother’s tears have the same effect. Similarly, people’s smiling faces are the same. Tears and smiles do not require a language. These can be experienced anywhere in the world with the same understanding.

We began our work in an age of optimism. The republic was new, the rulers were new to leadership. My cinema was born in an age of idealism. That is why the songs in my films have a pristine quality about them, the women have a fresh, innocent look. It is strange, but even in complex times such as the present, idealism still seems to work. But today anyone and everyone can become a producer or a director, without any qualifications. In the good old days, we had to graduate step by step. Today, my driver can become a producer, just by virtue of him being my driver! I am not against people becoming producers, this is a free country and everyone has the right to choose his or her profession, but the ground rules must be established. Or we are all stuck in a quicksand, sinking slowly but surely.

Excerpted with permission from Raj Kapoor The One and Only Showman, Ritu Nanda, HarperCollins India.

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