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(Bombay), 19 June 1987. Slingo, Carol J., ''K. A. Abbas (1914-87),'' in Jump Cut (Berkeley), February 1988.

Awara is very much the first major instance of the Hindi cinema's international influence, and as such provides an important index of the peculiar fascination of the Hindi film. Raj Kapoor's work has been hugely popular not only in the traditional markets in the Middle East and Africa, but in Eastern Europe and, according to recent accounts, in China. His films implicate us in a universe both parallel to and incestuously coupled with that other world cinema, Hollywood. The popular Hindi cinema occupies a colonial and post-colonial territory of conflicting identities and philosophical irreconcilables. The East presents itself as ''other'' than the West: Hollywood is flagrantly mimicked, but in a knowing, distorting, and finally disavowing way.

Awara is a sprawling work on identity: it revolves around the loss and recovery of a respectable, upper-class social position by the protagonist, Raj (Raj Kapoor). The script-writer, Ahmad Abbas, a left-wing novelist, journalist, and filmmaker, intended Awara as a criticism of the inflexible notions of a social hierarchy incompatible, so he believed, with the new India. However, the expression of these ideas within the framework of a popular Hindi movie opened them to ambivalence. Abbas accepted that Kapoor did not tamper with the story but only added the song and dance conventionally used in the popular cinema. But it is precisely in this way that the popular cinema presents the spectator with the possibility of a parallel realm of pleasure which may controvert (though in a kind of co-existing, unironic way) the work done in the narrative. Thus Raj, denied his proper place in society, and struggling to feed his starving mother, is compelled to take to crime. The role is glamorized by Kapoor's star performance and by songs which indicate, even amid the concluding pathos of the story—when the hero is jailed and separated from his sweetheart—that the life of the vagabond is an attractive one.

This kind of ambivalence is not restricted to scenes of spectacle, but is embedded in the narration. Popular Hindi cinema uses a melodramatic audio-visual register, where music, sound effects, and codings of dress and facial expression serve to emphasise the moral meanings of the fiction for the audience. But this moral sign-system is invariably manipulated to introduce narrative disorders, which indicate that the moral terms of the fiction are in fact not so stable.

For example, in Awara the villain, Jagga (K. N. Singh), often appears to be the shadow of Raj's father (Prithviraj Kapoor), insofar as both exclude Raj from legitimacy. Rita (Nargis), the character who will ultimately come to Raj's aid, is also an ambiguous figure. She is contaminated with the same attributes of wealth and class which bar the hero from social position. In this manifestation she is regressive and therefore coded as ''Western.'' By presenting "good" figures (the father and the sweetheart) in this way, the narrative actually registers certain truths: the fear of the father, especially in his representation of the oppressive law of the social order, and the sexual fascination with that ''Westernness'' (actually very much part of contemporary Indian culture) reflected in the Rita figure. But in the course of the narrative, these truths are submerged in the cause of recovering and stabilizing a ''pure'' Indian identity: the father has to be established as unambiguously ''good,'' while Rita has to be divested of the pejorative ''Western'' image.

Though it represents all these general and contradictory features of the Hindi film, Awara is still very much an epochal work of the post-independence era. In its delineation of disinherited social types in a pathetic yet glamorous way, in its underlying scepticism about the legal-rational order, it maps out the territory which would be traversed by the rural sagas of the 1950s and 1960s (for example, Mehboob Khan's Mother India and Nitin Bose's Jamuna) and which would be built into the highly successful revenge-saga films of the 1970s featuring Amithab Bachchan.

—Ravi Vasudevan

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