4 October 2019

The dream machine - II

My Mirror column:

What might we learn about our relationship with machines from Ritwik Ghatak’s classic Ajantrik and Buddhadev Dasgupta’s recent Urojahaj – with a detour through Naya Daur? The second of a two-part column




In last week’s column, I suggested that there might be something to be learnt from comparing two Indian films made 60 years apart, each about a man besotted with a machine – Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s most recent feature, Urojahaj (The Flight), and Ritwik Ghatak’s 1957 arthouse classic Ajantrik

In Urojahaj, the protagonist is a happily married man with a child, and his attachment to the broken-down Second World War plane he finds in the forest comes across as selfish. The mechanic’s quest for something so impractical can only be individualistic. The plane is an obsession that takes Bachhu Mondol away from those he loves. And as he hears more tales from ghosts of betrayed humans, he begins to be suspicious of those that love him: in one sadly revealing moment, when his wife tells him the police are looking for him, he actually asks her if it is she who has reported his discovery of the plane.


In Ajantrik, in contrast, the taxi driver hero Bimal has no-one else to love. The battered taxi seems to fill up the space in Bimal's heart where a person might have been. When Bimal speaks of Jagaddal, it is as a trusty companion – and when the car collapses, he sees it as betrayal.(“Even if I give you my all, I can't win your favour?”) His hunger for human company may be inarticulate, but when he encounters a young woman who has been cheated by her lover, something buried deep within the usually misanthropic Bimal bubbles up to the surface. When Jagaddal appears not to cooperate in his mission to help her, Bimal delivers a well-aimed kick to its engine. That unprecedented moment of anger kickstarts the process that will eventually bring the machine to its knees – and it might be said to stem from Bimal's frustrated effort to assist another human being.

Despite their differences, the close relationship between man and machine in both films seems to turn on excluding the rest of humanity. The same year as Ghatak made Ajantrik, the Hindi film industry also produced a hugely popular narrative about man and machine. Released on August 15, 1957, BR Chopra’s Naya Daur ('The New Age') starred Dilip Kumar as Shankar, a tangawalla who becomes the focal point of a battle between the horse-cart drivers of his village and the evil capitalist son of the village’s feudal landlord. The legendary climactic race between Shankar, straining at the reins of his horse-drawn cart, and the villainous Kundan at the wheel of his bus was staged such that the underdog would win. 

But even within Naya Daur’s wishful dream universe, laced with the labour-capitalist bhai-bhai rhetoric that was often as far as Hindi cinema socialism went, Shankar’s victory could only be presented as a one-time thing, a reprieve. The film was intended only to give us pause as we hurtled into the machine age, to consider the fate of the masses who would be left behind if we were not careful.

Ajantrik seems to occupy a mindspace so different that is scarcely recognisable as belonging to the same cultural landscape. Instead of a race between a tanga and a bus, Ghatak has his taxi compete with a train. The creaky, decrepit Jagaddal cannot win. But that does not lead us to anything so simple as a win or a loss for technology. Driving too fast on a curving hilly road to catch up with the train, Bimal must draw back from the edge in the nick of time – and the moment when he does is also the moment when he finally sees the world in which both taxi and train have arrived: disruptions, but here to stay.

What Ghatak shows us through Bimal’s eyes is a festive gathering of the Oraons: women singing with flowers in their hair, bare-chested men with drums, dancing in unison. There is something about Bimal’s gaze that seems to see but not see, the marvellous sight of the human body moving to a rhythm that has existed long before the rhythm of the machine. And yet, as the Oraon man who pushes the broken-down jalopy to Ranchi Station says to his sweetheart, it is the train from this station that takes “our people to Assam and Bhutan, to work in the tea gardens”. A single machine may die, Ghatak seems to suggest, but the machine is here to stay. 


Ajantrik extended the concept of pathetic fallacy from nature to the machine. But the human hero of 1957 still saw his favourite machine in human terms, giving his car a name and human attributes; a sense of life and death; even a kind of burial, at the scrap dealer’s. Sixty years later, at the end of Urojahaj, it is the human hero whose life and death are in balance. Bachhu Mondol, running from the irrationality of a tyrannical state, speeds through the forest and out onto what looks like a runway, and the camera pans over the ground, rising higher as if looking on from high. What Bachhu sees is what a plane would see, if it could. The man in search of freedom now models himself on the machine.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 Sep 2019





















The dream machine

My Mirror column:
In Buddhadev Dasgupta’s thought-provoking new film, a
 man obsessed with a plane starts talking to ghosts, making one think of another machine-loving madman in Ritwik Ghatak’s 1957 classic, Ajantrik


In Buddhadev Dasgupta's evocative new film Urojahaj (The Flight), a motor mechanic called Bachhu Mondol (Chandan Roy Sanyal) discovers an old plane abandoned in a forest near his village, and becomes obsessed with the idea of making it fly. He spends hours with the plane, repairing and repainting and dreaming. And most of all, talking to ghosts – the only other human beings to frequent the clearing where it lies hidden.


When it turns out to be a Japanese fighter plane that may have crashed there during the Second World War, one of the ghosts asks Bachhu, does he intend to go to war with the plane?

“I'm rebuilding this plane. I'm making it a new thing. It won’t remember killing people, or war,” says Bachhu immediately.

“Then what will it remember?” asks the she-ghost.

“The sky,” says Bachhu.

The mechanic’s idea of the plane as having a memory – and also being able to forget – is one of the gorgeously poetic ways in which the filmmaker conveys to us that at least for Bachhu, the machine is half-human. There are many other occasions in Urojahaj when the plane’s power over Bachhu is coded this way. “You’re dressing up the plane so much,” another ghost giggles. “Are you going to marry it?” Decrepit though it is, the machine has so completely captured Bachhu’s attention that even his wife starts to wonder if it is her soutan, the rival love of her husband’s life. Bachhu keeps assuring her of his love, but she is not convinced. “You don’t love me any more, else why would you go to the plane every night?” she asks him. And later, “What does the plane give you that I don’t?”

Urojahaj (2018) is Dasgupta's 17th feature film, the latest in a long and distinguished career that has established him as one of India’s internationally known auteurs, his films regularly screened and awarded at top-tier festivals like Venice and Cannes. Sadly, we live in a country in which films like Dasgupta’s barely make it to cinemas. But Urojahaj is a film well worth your time, and worth thinking about at many levels.

For one, the depth of Bachhu’s preoccupation with the plane instantly brings to mind another film about a man’s attachment to a machine directed by a Bengali filmmaker: Ritwik Ghatak's Ajantrik, made an astounding six decades ago. Released in 1957, Ajantrik was the second film made by Ghatak, maverick member of the trio of great Bengali auteurs along with Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. Known in the West alternately as The Mechanical Man and The Pathetic Fallacy, the film starred the well-known Bengali actor Kali Banerjee as a taxi driver who treats his dilapidated Chevrolet jalopy more lovingly than a human companion. Banerjee’s Bimal names the car Jagaddal, and talks to it at opportune moments.

“Thirsty, Jagaddal? Yes, you're panting, wait,” he might say, pouring water into the radiator on a hot day. Or “Sorry, Jagaddal, you'll have to make do with patches for now. I’ll buy you a shiny new hood when I’ve saved some money, I promise.”

Friends and acquaintances snigger about Bimal's excessive attachment to the car – “Private matter? Is the car your lady?” – but he is unperturbed, even turning up in a starched white dhuti-panjabi the day he decides to get Jaggadal photographed. But having shown us Bimal dressed as a coy bridegroom, Ghatak joyfully juggles the car’s imagined gender and age. “Amar Jagaddal baagher bachcha (My Jagaddal is a tiger cub),” announces Bimal proudly in the very next scene. “They envy him, naturally. What young man wouldn’t envy an old man with such stamina?” Soon enough, we also see Jagaddal's number plate, which reads ‘BRO 117’.

In contrast to Urojahaj’s fairly even fable-like quality, Ajantrik alternates between physical comedy, meditative observation and a surprising emotional heft. There is early laughter when Jagaddal splutters and bubbles and honks in response to Bimal, making the film a precursor of such Hollywood creations as Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle of The Love Bug (1968). But for the lonely Bimal, Jagaddal is his most constant companion, about whom he is quite openly sentimental. “He earns me two rupees a day, no matter what. He’s been with me since my mother died,” he tells the little boy who works in the garage.

On another level, Bimal’s trips with Jagaddal are a way for us to travel through rural Chhotanagpur, a 1950s landscape in which female faces are disproportionately limited to line-drawn advertisements for Baidyanath and Dabur Amla Kesh Tel. It is no wonder that a bejewelled Bengali bride who boards the taxi draws Bimal’s attention. He does not chastise her even when she switches from a romantic, almost aesthetic appreciation of the ruin – how lovely the sky looks through a hole in Jagaddal’s canopy – to a pragmatic, modernist disdain for it: “What a rotten car!”

Ghatak may seem merely to be gesturing to what Urojahaj makes explicit: that a man’s attentions cannot be successfully divided between a machine and a woman. But perhaps there is much more there.

(To be continued next week)

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 Sep 2019.

8 September 2019

Out of the Closet with Kitty and Nan


The third instalment of my TVOF column Shelf Life, in which I look at literature through the prism of clothing, is about a book I have loved for twenty years:

In the 19th-century London of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, clothes can help keep secrets—or reveal new selves. What looks like display might well be a disguise.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” runs the famous speech in As You Like It. It is fitting that history's most famous playwright made the theatre a metaphor for the unfolding of human life. But the stage can also be the perfect literary take-off point for stories of self-transformation—and the first step in becoming something—or someone—else is to dress the part. Sarah Waters' extraordinary first novel Tipping the Velvet, published 20 years ago and set in the Britain of the 1880s, begins on the music hall stage. That is where, in the Canterbury Palace of Varieties, the entranced Nancy Astley first sets her eyes upon Kitty Butler.

At first glance, Miss Butler is a girl dressed up to look like a posh young man: in a gentleman's suit, tailored to her size and lined at the cuffs with bright silk, with a white bow tie at her collar and a top hat on her head. But as Nancy's hungry gaze takes in more detail, she realises that though Kitty strides and sings like a boy, and stands with her hands “thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets”, her slender frame is unmistakably rounded “at the bosom, the stomach and the hips, in a way no real boy's ever was”.

What makes Kitty attractive is her changeability: now she seems like an exceptionally pretty boy, and now a slender, boyish girl. And much of that sense of changeability—for Kitty, and later for Nancy—is achieved in the novel through clothes.


Clothes are crucial, too, to the unlikely relationship that springs up between the upcoming music hall star and the Whitstable oyster girl. The adoring Nan begins to visit Kitty in her dressing room, folding up her stage clothes with quivering fingers, secretly pressing to her cheek “the starched linen of her shirt, the silk of the waistcoat and the stockings, the wool of the jacket and the trousers” —receiving from the clothes an erotic charge that their wearer has not yet acknowledged. Soon, the growing familiarity with the costumes becomes the route to intimacy with the person: Nan becomes Kitty's dresser, and her companion in London.


It is after this that the novel really comes into its own, laying out in scintillating narrative a world of performance, both off-stage and on it. Hoping to distinguish Kitty from a rising tide of male impersonators, her agent tells Kitty and Nan that they must “go about the city and study the men”, so that her act can broaden into a host of different male guises, each with its own song—and crucially, its own costume: “What think you of a policeman's jacket? Or a sailor's blouse? ... all that handsome gentlemen's toggery that languishes, at this very minute, at the bottom of some costumier's hamper, waiting, simply waiting for Kitty Butler to step inside it and lend it life!”

The Pleasures of Dressing Up

A still from the miniseries adaptation of the novel
But Kitty is not the only one to experience the magical power of clothes; the book's real heroine is waiting in the wings. On their first Christmas, Kitty gives the normally drably dressed Nan a “long, slim evening dress of deepest blue”, which Nan thinks far too fine for her. At Kitty's insistence, she wears it to dinner, only to find herself attracting more male flirtation than she ever has—followed by Kitty's inchoate jealousy, which finally lights the spark that turns them into lovers.

“The dress was so transforming that it was practically a disguise,” writes Waters in that passage, presaging Nan's future. For she will soon join Kitty on stage, their double act rising to top billing.

Among the book's most perceptive moments is the one where the shy, reluctant Nan realises that performing gives her pleasure. From that on-stage frisson “in the wearing of handsome suits, the singing of ribald songs” to recognising that the thrill of “display and disguise” only becomes more acute if the performance is live, off-stage—that is the journey that transports Nan first into London's lewd side-streets, then into its upper crust lesbian boudoirs, and finally into feminist-socialist circles. 


Kitty had resisted the pull of her masculine clothing, trying almost obsessively to keep her stage persona apart from her ordinary life. But the inner and the outer cannot be delinked so easily. Kitty’s fear of public censure (for being seen as a “tom”, a lesbian) is also a fear of her inner self.


Nan, in contrast, seems to revel in the inner possibilities opened up by changing her external appearance. And those possibilities—like her costumes—are unendingly changeable. Dressing as a boy in real life begins as a strategy for safety, but it is risk that keeps her hooked.   

Clothes are, in many ways, the driving force of Waters' narrative of sexual selfhood. New costumes seem to propel Nan into new selves. And yet somehow, simultaneously, it is she who animates them, her very physicality altering with each new avatar. Perhaps that, then, is the ultimate power of clothes: they can turn all of us into shapeshifters, performing ever-new roles on a real-life stage. If we can just enjoy the performance, it might no longer feel like one.


The Spirit of Technologies Past

My Mirror column:

As we hurtle ever faster into a digitised present, some recent films cast an affectionate glance back at the technologies that made us who we are.


Right at the beginning of the recently released 
Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo, director Pratim D Gupta tells us that his film is about a time “when porn was watched on DVD, news was read in print… and films were made for theatres”. Right from its charming children’s detective story title (the Bangla translates as ‘Shantilal and the Butterfly Mystery’), the film lives and breathes a certain gentle nostalgia. But its special focus is an era that existed until quite recently in India, a time that feels like it’s being elbowed out at top speed by technological transformation. What’s interesting is that the nostalgia is itself framed around an earlier era of technology: the newspaper, the cinema, the photograph.
The film’s deadbeat weather reporter protagonist, Shantilal, with his unquenched desire for a “front page story”; the neighbour who hounds him for a free spot in the matrimonial pages of The Sentinel; the DVD shop guy who urges Bertolucci, Bergman and Buñuel upon a customer who’s waiting for his supply of quality Malaysian erotica – all of these look back fondly to a time before the digital conquest of our lives. But the pirated DVD may be the one to focus on: a signifier of an in-between time. Not before computers, but before news stories began to be broken on Twitter timelines, before Shaadi.com, and before the endless glut of internet porn. It is an era that is not in fact that distant – which is perhaps why it feels so surreal that it is already gone.

Shantilal 
brings to the fore a theme that has, in fact, underlain many Indian films in the past five or six years: our memories of an analogue era. Ritesh Batra’s 2013 critical and commercial success, The Lunchbox, used a dabbawala mix-up to deliver a tribute to a fast-disappearing world – the Hindi music cassettes Deshpande Aunty still listens to, the Orient fan around which Deshpande Uncle’s stagnant life revolves, the Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi episodes recorded from Doordarshan that Saajan Fernandes watches endlessly in memory of his wife. (Using the voice of Bharati Achrekar as the never-seen Mrs Deshpande was, of course, the perfect meta-textual reference to Doordarshan, on which she was once such a profoundly familiar face.)



If
 The Lunchbox took a rather melancholy view, Sharat Kataria’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) was a more enthusiastic, even raunchy tribute to the 1990s, featuring Ayushmann Khurrana as the small-town owner of a cassette shop. Some of the most endearing moments of the film’s post-marital romance between Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar involved the VCR as a therapeutic sexual aid and the playing of songs as messages on a cassette player.

The audio cassette with songs personally picked out and recorded was, of course, the ultimate 1990s romantic gesture. That was the matrix of a more recent 1990s-set romance, the Yash Raj production
 Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017), also starring Khurrana. In that film, Khurrana plays a Bengali middle class hero (complete with a daaknaam – Bubla), whose largely unrequited love for his neighbour Bindu is tied up with the technology of their adolescence: Ambassador cars, STD-ISD booths, a nascent virtual universe embodied in email addresses such as muqaddarkasikandar1977@hotmail.com.


Video cassettes were crucial to both Nitin Kakkar’s
 Filmistaan and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Both released in 2014: one set in Pakistan, the other in Kashmir, and both had political messages. Although tonally miles apart, the two films are united by their references to the early Salman Khan films Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Kakkar presents those films, as he does all Hindi cinema, as the great unifier of countries and people divided by Partition. Haider, written by the journalist and author Basharat Peer, adapts Shakespeare’s Hamlet to 1990s Kashmir: a dark and violent place, as searingly sarcastic as it is driven to desperation. In this world, the two Salmans – the original play’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned brilliantly into Bhai fans and lookalikes who run a videocassette shop – initially seem like comic relief. But as the film builds to its necessarily tragic climax, it becomes clear that no amount of grainy re-watching of MPK songs can keep Haider (Shahid Kapoor) from seeing the reality of the Salmans – or keep Kashmir from seeing the reality of India.

To return to Shantilal o Projapoti Rohoshyo: it isn’t just a simple tribute to a past era. The protagonists of Pratim Gupta’s not-quite-mystery live on the cusp of the present, and often display an active reluctance to cross over. Shantilal himself doesn’t have Whatsapp, though he does have a mobile phone. The film star in her prime (Paoli Dam, very effective as Nandita) expresses a nostalgia for autograph seekers in an era of selfies, and keeps a corner of her bedroom as a photographic shrine to her past. But she finds her future threatened by a photograph from that past. Old technologies can inspire nostalgia, but our attachment to them may tell us less about those forms than about ourselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1 Sep 2019.

A love for all seasons

Continuing my tribute to RK Films, a look back at the banner’s first success, Barsaat (1949). What was its place in Raj Kapoor’s life and career, and in Hindi cinema?

A moment between Raj Kapoor and Nargis from Barsaat (1949) -- Raj Kapoor's first hit as a filmmaker -- became first the poster (left) and then the RK Films logo (right)
Raj Kapoor’s second film as a producer-director was Barsaat (1949). His father Prithiviraj had been the hero of all the Prithvi Theatre plays he directed over 16 years. Raj Kapoor, too, cast himself as his own protagonist from his directorial debut Aag (1948) until Mera Naam Joker (1970). That penchant for playing the hero may have been connected to the semi-autobiographical quality he brought to his cinema.

The central tension of Barsaat is between the philosophical worldviews of two friends, Pran (Kapoor) and Gopal (Prem Nath). They are educated young men of the same class background, both babus from the city who end up romancing naive girls from the mountains. Kashmir is never named, but the clothes, the women’s jewellery and the shikara rowed by Reshma (Nargis) establish Barsaat as part of a long history of Hindi films in which the unhappy state has figured as a beautiful playground for mainland heroes, “pardesis” who love and leave. The metaphorical weight of that cinematic history is undeniable, especially as we watch it in August 2019, when what seemed an innocuous theme 70 years ago has come home to roost as an Indian ‘national’ claim on Kashmiri territory and women.

But to return to the film’s more frontal concerns: the two men stand for very different things. Pran is a sensitive violin-playing poet, waiting for his one true love, while the pragmatic Gopal has a girl in every port – taking his pleasure where he can and never looking back. As one of the film’s multiple brilliant songs went, “Main chanchal madmast pavan hoon, ghoom-ghoom har kali ko choomoon”. If wind was one metaphor for moving unapologetically on, a flowing river was the other: in the words of scriptwriter Ramanand Sagar, later of Doordarshan Ramayan fame, Gopal describes himself thus: “Bas dariya ke lehron ki tarah guzar gaya, laut ke phir us ghaat ka khayaal tak nahi aaya.”

Prem Nath had already played foil to Raj Kapoor in Aag, where Kapoor’s character Kewal describes Prem Nath’s artist Rajan as a worshipper of the body rather than a seeker of the soul. In Barsaat, too, Nath’s Gopal is a man of lusty appetites while Kapoor plays a true romantic, who believes love must contain pain as much as pleasure: “Jismein ansoo nahi hote, woh saccha pyaar nahi hota”. Barsaat cemented the persona Raj Kapoor had already begun to create with Aag: that of a man in love with love.

But while he constantly berates Gopal for saying that love is only lust by another name, Kapoor's romantic hero is not quite the pure disembodied lover he wishes to be. Raj Kapoor had placed that quandary about loving ‘inner beauty’ versus physical attractiveness upfront in Aag, with the hero saying his life might have been different if he hadn’t been so attracted to beautiful girls. There, Kewal went to the extreme of disfiguring his face as a test of real love. Here, in Barsaat a year later, Kapoor seems more at ease with his own vanity, letting his on-screen lover Reshma (played by his off-screen lover Nargis) refer to the depths of his blue eyes (she talks of them in Aag, too, but there her attraction is punished).

These were themes that lasted through Raj Kapoor’s life: vanity, physical beauty, lust versus love, body versus soul. A man of average height in a family of tall Pathans, he was always insecure about height: he once said he knew when Nargis was going to leave him because she came to see him wearing heels. His pride in his blue eyes was also legend: Madhu Jain’s book on the Kapoors tells of how he finally scheduled a long-needed eye surgery because the surgeon also had light eyes. Only a man who knew the value of those eyes personally would safeguard them from harm. Jain also mentions that Kapoor wanted to make a film called Soorat Aur Seeratstarring Lata Mangeshkar as a disfigured heroine with a magic voice. Many years later, he came back to it in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Perhaps these are irresolvable questions. Barsaat came down emphatically on the side of one true love, the film’s Nargis-Raj Kapoor track suggesting the almost miraculous power of loyalty and longevity. It also made the Nargis-Raj Kapoor jodi the stuff of legend, their undeniable passion enshrined forever in the film’s posters, and later even more permanently and publicly, in the RK Films logo. The man who holds his woman and his violin in the same passionate embrace, suggesting that his art and his love were inextricably linked, may have been an accurate depiction of Raj Kapoor’s relationship with Nargis. And yet Barsaat was also the work of a man who had married his wife Krishna in 1946, a woman who sold her jewellery to help him make Barsaat. He met Nargis four months after, and had entanglements with other creative muses after her – Padmini, Vyjayanthimala and Lata Mangeshkar among them – but he never left his wife.

Fire in the Belly

My Mirror column:

The demolition of RK Studios last week marked the end of an era. That era began with Aag, released 71 years ago this August


Raj Kapoor’s first film under the RK Films banner, released on August 6, 1948, wasn’t a commercial success. Perhaps with good reason, for it was in many ways a raw work, an early and rather theatrical expression of the sensibility of the man who would come to be known as India’s ‘great showman’. But Aag (Fire) also contained several elements that would often recur in Raj Kapoor’s early films: melodious, soulful songs, grandly choreographed stage sequences, a hero out to forge his own path in the world, and Nargis.

I watched Aag as a child, under the encouraging influence of my Nani and her RK-loving sisters. But although it features an adorable ten-year-old Shashi Kapoor daydreaming in history class (and at one point, even putting on a show of Bilwa Mangal, complete with a fake moustache), Aag really isn’t a film meant for ten year olds. All I remembered of it all these years was its opening scene. The just-married hero enters the room where his new bride is seated on the bed, bejewelled and veiled. There is some banter on his part about her ghoonghat getting longer; she laughs bashfully in response. We see him approach her, slowly working up to unveiling her face as traditional Hindu suhaag raat heroes must. He does, she lifts her eyes shyly to look at him for the first time – and lets out a scream. The reversal that Raj Kapoor engineers here is memorable – making all the verbal build-up about the woman's face, while it is the man’s face, burnt by fire, in which the story lies. Between that perfect bit of cinematic deceit and the almost gothic horror quality of the scene, Aag’s remains one of Hindi cinema’s most interesting suhaag raat scenes.

A ten-year-old Shashi Kapoor, as a child actor in Raj Kapoor's directorial debut Aag
Watching the film last week, though, I was struck by other things. The genteel hero estranged from his father, who leaves his comfortable home and is penniless in the big city, first appears in incipient form in Aag. The figure who would grow into the Raj Kapoor tramp archetype in later films like Shree 420 and Awara is seen in Aag in a short sequence that is a turning point in the narrative. The film’s runaway protagonist Kewal Khanna (Kapoor) walks into an apparently empty theatre, delivers a teary soliloquy about having left home, and is instantly embraced as friend and partner by the theatre’s owner Rajan (Prem Nath), who has been sitting silently through Kewal’s monologue and is impressed by his passion, for life and for theatre.

Kewal’s speech is interesting, because it is essentially a call for the young Indian to be allowed to decide his own future rather than follow in the footsteps of family. What makes it more interesting, though, are the possible biographical extrapolations. Like the fictional Kewal Khanna, Prithviraj Kapoor had been a young man from a bourgeois Punjabi family who failed his first year law exam and decided to leave Peshawar for Bombay to start a new life on the stage. But unlike in Aag, where the angel who invests in Kewal’s future is a theatre owner who’s male and Hindu, the 22-year-old Prithviraj was picked out of a line of extras at Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Studios by Ermeline, the Jewish star of Bombay’s then silent film industry. Struck by Prithviraj’s physique and Greek-god good looks, Ermeline decided she had found the hero of her next film, Cinema Girl. Prithviraj never returned to the extras queue.

The story of Prithviraj’s entry into the world of acting, as Madhu Jain tells it in her wonderful book The Kapoors, is filled with supportive collaborators and encouraging mentors like Ermeline, Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi, KA Abbas and various others from the IPTA (the Indian People’s Theatre Association). Earlier, during his undergraduate years, his theatre dreams had been nurtured by his professor’s wife from Peshawar’s King Edwards College, an Englishwoman called Norah Richards. To this delightfully mixed world of the colonial Indian city, Prithviraj Kapoor eventually added his own contribution in 1944: Prithvi Theatres.

Raj Kapoor, as Prithviraj’s eldest son, necessarily underwent an apprenticeship in the theatre. But the elder Kapoor was a hard taskmaster, instinctively socialist in his staunch egalitarian treatment of all troupe members – rather than the feudal Indian father who might spoil his own children or give them more. He was apparently worried that Raj was naalayak; Jain suggests that those who knew him believe he wanted Raj to “have a proper education, followed by a proper job”, though he had himself rejected that path. 

Odd as it may seem, then, the anguish of Aag’s hero was not just that of Prithviraj’s battle against his father – but also of Raj against his.