Raj Kapoor was the great star-auteur of India’s postcolonial golden age of movies — Cary Grant and Cecil B. DeMille in one handsome package. 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. Kapoor, who modeled his screen persona on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, was 26 when he filmed Awaara (The Tramp). A pompous judge (Kapoor’s father Prithviraj) disowns his wife (all-time Indian cinema mom Leela Chitnis) when some months after being kidnapped she returns pregnant; his baseless suspicion is that the bandit she’s been with is the father. In ignominy and in secret, she bears the judge’s son (Kapoor), who is raised a vagabond and, decades later, goes on trial before the judge. Sensational revelations!
As Kapoor sees it, the wellspring of these torrents of guilt is a society divided into Brahmins and outcasts. Beyond the social finger-pointing, Awaara is a glistening showcase for Kapoor and the great India siren Nargis (his lover onscreen and off); it features a sadistic-sexy beach scene and a dream sequence that starts in delirium and revs up to delicious. 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, the U.S.S.R. and China.