(Warning: Spoilers)
The Vagabond aka Awâra (1951)
10 February 2009

Actor/producer/director Raj Kapoor’s The Vagabond is a melodrama in the original sense of the term: a drama with music used to reinforce its emotional impact and provide commentary on characters and incidents. Kapoor’s third film, released when he was 27 years old, is a landmark of Indian cinema; a blueprint, so to speak, for the film style that would come to represent Bollywood. Kapoor (1924-1988) was a scion of a high-caste family who was educated in British boarding schools. Beginning with The Vagabond, he created a persona, partly influenced by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, which allowed him to become a popular figure of identification.

His protagonist is Raj, the biological son of Judge Raghunath, raised in the slums because his father believed his mother was impregnated by notorious criminal Jagga during a brief abduction. It’s significant to note that it is a woman, the judge’s sister-in-law, who upholds patriarchal notions about female purity and compels him to banish his wife from the home to protect the family’s reputation. The film establishes a feud between Jagga and Judge Raghunath, who had wrongly convicted him of rape purely on the basis that he was a “born felon”. Jagga is a fallen angel, an innocent who had transcended his family’s disreputable heritage only to be victimized by a representative of a vile system and poisoned by the hatred engendered by his subsequent incarceration. Jagga sets out to prove, over the course of two decades, that Raj, a boy with the “right genes”, can turn into a criminal.

Raghunath’s brief voice-over at the start of the film depicts him as a progressive who was the family’s “black sheep” because he opposed the “social norm” and married a widow. He compares his life to a “boat caught in cross currents”. Raghunath proves too weak to defy the status quo and betrays his wife, whom he sincerely loves. The Vagabond develops into a conflict between father and son complicated by the character of Rita. Raj falls in love with her when they were children and comes back into her life when she has become the judge’s ward and object of desire. It is Rita who defends Raj in court when he is on trial for attempting to murder his father. Rita emerges as Raj’s conscience, his advocate and his redeemer.

The Vagabond aims to dispel certain ideas held by the privileged in India (and elsewhere) that heredity or “nature” determines human behavior, as opposed to environmental conditions. The film constitutes an indictment of those who believe, for instance, that education is wasted on the poor. Moreover, Kapoor and his collaborators establish that feudalist ideology and the caste system make it impossible for the poor to improve their station and practically force them to lead a life of crime. The Vagabond’s true villains are the systems of thought that prohibit slum boys like Jagga to “bloom in murky waters” and discourage privileged ones like Raghamuth from being true to their hearts.

The Vagabond culminates with two jail scenes. Raghamuth visits Raj, takes responsibility for his plight and calls him “son” for the first time, his arms outstretched through the bars that keep them apart. Raj moves to the far end of the cell and, facing a window to the outside world, weeps “…for society, where poverty breeds crime…” In the final scene, Rita visits Raj and they pledge to put their love above everything else. Raj vows to become a good man, and an educated man. He conveys how important it is for him to serve his sentence as penance for the life he’s led. Doing so will make him worthy of her. Then he says: “Last night I saw a judge”, implying one with a genuine sense of justice tempered with compassion, “and I’ll become a judge”.

Judges, like the one we envision Raj becoming, judges with wisdom derived from rich life experience, are beacons of hope and inspiration for an ailing society.