The ACMI is celebrating the one-of-a-kind career of the iconic Indian cinema giant, Raj Kapoor.
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16 Feb 2012 - 5:29 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

Let's play a cinematic version of the fantasy sporting leagues that are now so readily available. We're putting together a cinematic artist, and in this instance he's a man; or, to be more precise, a leading man. Let's begin with the masculine swagger and quiet certainty of Clark Gable, and add the sense of pathos exhibited by Spencer Tracy. Introduce a sense of the iconic, and how a face helps frame the landscape and political mores, which means a nod to Robert Redford.

Any imaginary actor with those qualities isn't going to stay solely in front of camera for long. He'd soon be a director, one who would look to combine slapstick with social realism, for which we require Charlie Chaplin, and there's no doubt he'd produce as well, not only his own work but those of others, just as George Clooney does. And to top it off durability, the kind that Clint Eastwood has shown over the last five decades.

If the results of that editing session sounds impossible to imagine, like some kind of filmmaking Frankenstein, then look no further for a real life example than one in the form of Raj Kapoor, the iconic Indian hyphenate whose extensive body of work places him as one of the founding fathers of today's vast Bollywood movie industry.

A new retrospective season at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image, running from Thursday 16 February to Wednesday 14 March, provides a worthy introduction to actor, director and producer. Born in 1924 in Peshawar in British India and gone too soon at the age of 63 in 1988 in what was then a far different India, Kapoor straddles numerous incarnations and outlooks of the sub-continent; the four weeks of screenings take in 13 pictures that span from 1948 to 1985.

As with the season ACMI programmed a year ago on the underappreciated Hong Kong star of the sixties, Linda Lin Dai, Focus on Raj Kapoor provides new insight to a relatively unknown artist. So often the history of Indian cinema is condensed down to a single name: Satyajit Ray. But his humanist works are just one strand, and Kapoor stands as a more commercially popular equivalent who remains revered in his homeland.

That inequality was one of the reasons the program was originally compiled by the Toronto International Film Festival's year round headquarters Bell Lightbox. Curated by Artistic Director Noah Cowan, the films were assembled with express purpose of traveling internationally. They've already screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the ACMI season, according to James Nolen, ACMI's coordinating curator, will be unfolding alongside London dates that will necessitate some quick exchange of materials.

“It's a global tour,” says Nolen. “It's really an achievement to have assembled eight of them on prints. They haven't really had a great culture of preserving their films [in India]. They're not restored films, but at least they've gone back to the original elements. There are signs of age to them, but you don't want them to be blu-ray quality because the whole point is that they are on film.”

Raj Kapoor came from a family of actors (and he turned it into a dynasty, through his sons and now his grandchildren enjoying their own Bollywood careers) and his debut role came at age of 11. In 1947 he played his first lead, and the very next year in a sign of precocity he produced, directed and starred in Fire (Aag) at the age of 24. The plot was a melodramatic representation of his own rise, with Kapoor as a young man banished by his father who eventually earns enough money to open his own theatre and host a performance by the woman he loves.

Money, in the form of power and prestige, expectation and corruption, was a prominent feature in Kapoor's work, whether it was cruelly absent as in the story of two slum children set to work as beggars by a relative in 1953's Boot Polish (produced by Kapoor and directed by Prakash Arora), or dangerously abundant in 1985's God, Your River is Tainted (Ram Teri Ganga Mailli), where a young man (played by Kapoor's son Rajiv) flees a tainted Calcutta for rural rejuvenation.

Kapoor was making films from virtually the official birth of India onwards, when the violence of partition marked the translation from British rule to democracy, and even without a close reading of history it's clear that undercurrents in his work often measured the changes, both economic and social, in Indian society. At the same time, R.K. Films was a commercial enterprise, intent on box-office success.

“This is not a one note filmmaker – he's across a lot of things,” agrees James Nolen. “He's looking at telling stories in different ways and keeping it fresh, but also keeping his audience entertained which is really important, too. Raj is amazing in that respect. I don't know if there's an equivalent anywhere.”

As with the screwball era in 1930s Hollywood, Kapoor used the travails of the wealthy to reveal rarefied lives while upending them. Some of his best works as a director are romantic melodramas such 1973's Bobby, where the resounding score reveals vast rooms that contain not a speck of affection between members of a wealthy family; a shot from above of a young boy, abandoned by adults, in one ornate room offers a powerful portent of his adult life to come in the same mansion.

It can be hard to maintain a grasp of Kapoor's talents. Several of these movies – Hindi language with English subtitles – feature his renowned tramp character (obviously inspired by Chaplin) who allowed Kapoor to offset social commentary with physical slapstick. In 1956's Stay Awake (Jagte Raho, directed by Amir and Sombhu Mitra), the character inadvertently enters a luxury Calcutta building while trying to find drinking water and ends up revealing the deceits and denials that have previously stayed behind closed doors.

1951's The Vagabond (Awaara) was the initial appearance of the same character, although the story of a marginalised son charged with trying to kill his father is hardly comic. But the film is notable for pioneering a hallmark of Indian cinema: bringing the internal desires and fears of the protagonists to life through bursts of song and dance. When a contemporary Bollywood film explodes into colour and movement, it's because of Raj Kapoor.

James Nolen hopes that historical precedent will help act as a gateway back into the past for present day Bollywood devotees and newcomers. It would help because there are definitely differences – in terms of tempo and running time – that separate some of Kapoor's work from what younger audiences are used to. The key is to appreciate the differences, such as the ostentatious production design that in the commercial selections deliberately eschew realism. As so many Indians did, you have to trust Raj Kapoor.

“It's so wonderfully artificial, and everyone knows it's artificial,” explains Nolen. “The people who struggle with this sort of film have to let it work its magic on you. It's such a different pacing to western films, so you can't watch it through those eyes. You've just got to let it happen.”

Focus on Raj Kapoor runs until Wednesday 14 March at Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image. For more information see www.acmi.net.au.