Focus On Raj Kapoor
For one reason or another, Bollywood remains a blind spot in the cinephilia of many Western film fans. Is it the butt-numbing run-times that deter audiences? Or the whiplash changes in tone, which see films shift from tragedy to slapstick, often within a matter of moments? Perhaps it’s the tradition of embroidering even the most harrowing narratives with show-stopping song-and-dance numbers?
“It’s fascinating to unravel this question,” says James Nolen, the Film Programmer behind ACMI’s upcoming season dedicated to Bollywood superstar Raj Kapoor. “The Indian continent as a source of film is an enormous enigma. Audiences that come to ACMI will generally flock to a [Robert] Bresson or a [Vittorio] De Sica [screening], but they’re sort of blinkered away from Southeast Asian films. So there is some hope of addressing this imbalance. This is our attempt open this up to a new audience, even though these are not new films.”
Kapoor’s work makes a great starting point for the Bollywood-curious. From the selection Beat has been able to sample, they range from psychedelic teen romances (Bobby) to heightened black-and-white melodramas (Monsoon) and stark social realist dramas (Boot Polish). Despite the wild variations in style and subject, one thing remains constant: each film is littered with great Bollywood music.
“In some ways, a lot of these films [can be seen] as traditional musicals, which Hollywood has been making since the ’30s, since sound was introduced. If you think of them like that, they’re not as unusual to accommodate in your sphere of understanding film,” Nolen suggests.
“They are entertainment as well as often having strong social messages. Maybe we struggle in Western culture to have both in one film – [having] a message and entertainment at once.”
Like all popular forms, the Bollywood musicals of Kapoor and his contemporaries can be seen as vehicles by which filmmakers smuggled subversive content out to a wide audience. Kapoor, for instance, often challenged the strictures of Hindi custom and society in his movies, as well as the seemingly insuperable chasm that still divides India’s haves from its have-nots. Audiences would come for the romance and the music – and, later, the glamour and the spectacular international locations – but leave with a little food for thought.
“It’s almost by subterfuge, isn’t it?” says Nolen of this crafty M.O., believing the films’ saleable and seemingly frivolous veneers often shrewdly belie their polemic. “[As you watch], you think, ‘You’re actually much more clever than you appear to be…”’
Nolen believes the phenomenal success of Glee has reaffirmed the popularity of this sort of storytelling, where, as he puts it, “you have a story and then a song emerges out of nowhere. I’m fascinated to see whether younger audiences make the connection that Glee is not a new concept,” he says. “It’s existed in Western and non-Western moving image formats [for a long time].”
The 13 films that will screen during this retrospective span the length of Kapoor’s career as a filmmaker and include films he directed, starred in, or produced under the banner of his highly influential R.K. Films. On many of these movies, Kapoor performed all three duties, making him kind of a Hindi contemporary of Orson Welles. The latter’s influence is observable in some of Kapoor’s noir-ish black-and-white early films as director, where bold, high-contrast compositions and self-announcing camerawork work wonders with the monochrome frame.
This ACMI season gives Melbourne audiences a rare opportunity to gain a holistic view of Kapoor’s career. Many of the films will be screening on exhaustively sourced 35mm prints, which ACMI has on loan from the Toronto International Film Festival’s new Bell Lightbox cinema centre.
“This has been a happy coincidence, because I’ve been looking to do some sort of retrospective of celebrated Bollywood films,” tells Nolen. “The problem is, even in India there are no film prints for a lot of them, or no screenable versions [available] digitally. So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in the preservation of Hindi cinema.”
One of the first major programs curated by the Bell Lightbox theatre following its opening in 2010 was an extensive spotlight on landmark Bollywood cinema. “They scoured the world to find all the film prints,” Nolan explains. “[India] is starting so far behind in terms of film preservation and film culture. It’s always ironic when [restoration and preservation work] has to happen out of the country – that a Canadian cultural organisation has had to take up the baton. [But it’s] been really good. They’ve enabled other peer organisations like the BFI and MOMA and us to then share [in their work]. They’ve done this with a much broader scope to really revive some names like Raj Kapoor, or to promote them to new audiences who’ve never heard of them.”
While Nolen hasn’t yet seen many of the prints that will screen as part of the ACMI program, he confirms that none of these films have had the benefit of restoration. Some wear and tear will be visible.
“That’s part of the beauty of print,” he enthuses. “You’re not just seeing the film – you’re seeing the history of the film. It’s very romanticised. But the fact that these exist on film with English subtitles is itself an extraordinary thing.”
BY GERARD ELSON
Focus On Raj Kapoor screens Thursday February 16 to Wednesday March 14 at ACMI. For full program information and screening times, please visit acmi.net.au.