Do you think Raj Kapoor ever met Orson Welles? I hope so, for Orson’s sake. Raj could hang out in India and talk to Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and have people who could actually understand his level of genius. But Orson was all alone off there in Hollywood.
I don’t know if Raj Kapoor met Orson, but it looks like he did meet Chaplin. Good! I hope they just sat there and were brilliant film visionaries together, like when the Beatles jammed with Elvis.
The early Raj Kapoor films, Shree 420 and Awara, are so brilliant all around, and so groundbreaking, like every 5 minutes he is inventing a new element of Indian film, whether it is plot or visual or technical or whatever, it’s almost over-whelming. It feels kind of like Sholay, like the movies are so amazing that they took control of their creators, like no one man could possibly have contributed everything. And, arguably, one man didn’t. Raj pulled together Shankar-Jaikishen for the music, and K.A. Abbas for the scripts, and Nargis contributed an unknown amount (she was present at every production meeting for every film made by RK studios during the ten years she and Raj were together). But Sangam was made post-Nargis, and when all his other genius collaborators had moved on to work with other people as well, so this was all Raj. And the man is BRILLIANT.
Years ago, I watched a documentary on the Enigma project in England during WWII. And they interviewed some people who had worked with Turing. And one of the interviewees said, this was a group of the smartest people in England at the time, all working together, and with other people when they had a good idea, you thought “Oh, okay, I can see how they got there, that makes sense, on a good day maybe I could have figured that out myself.” But with Turing, he would say something, and you would think “I could never in a million years have thought of that.” And that’s what it is like watching a Raj Kapoor movie. You watch other directors, even the good ones like Manmohan Desai or Karan Johar or sometimes Yash Chopra, and you think “okay, I can see how he would come up with that, he had to get from point a to point b, so that makes sense.” But with a Raj Kapoor movie, you look at any frame of it and you think “No one else could ever do this.” Just like Guru Dutt or Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin. Which is why I hope they got to talk together sometime, because they were probably very lonely.
In Sangam, Raj Kapoor is playing with triangles. Over and over again, he will frame a shot so the Vyjantimala and Rajendra Kumar and Raj are forming a triangle. Which sounds simple, but it is really hard to do on film, because film is flat. So to make a triangle look like a triangle, and not 3 people standing in a row, you need to use a really deep depth of field. Which is super complicated! To keep the camera focused correctly, to have everyone hit their marks just so, to keep your main characters in focus and the background characters not. I mean, look at this song! It seems simple, but see how all 3 of them keep moving so the triangle keeps shifting? And yet they all stay in focus, and the rest of the crowd fades into the background? Heck, they all stay visible! Look at 3 minutes 20 seconds into this song, how Raj Kapoor is still visible in the background, perfectly positioned, with Vyjantimala and Rajendra Kumar in the foreground, and they are all in focus. Just having that one shot would be a miracle, but they do it over and over again in this song! They are all moving around constantly, from spot to spot, and the blocking is always perfect.
It’s not even limited to our 3 stars and their obvious triangle, because that would be too simple and boring! Raj figured out ways to put in triangles where you don’t even consciously see them. Look at 4 minutes and 55 seconds in. How the white jackets of the dancers in the background, the white of the sari of the extra in the upper left, and the white of Vyjantimala at the piano form another perfect triangle. And instead of just having one dancer stand to the right, he had a series of them moving on and off that one spot, until Raj himself comes up to replace them, and Rajendra Kumar moves in from the left to replace and block the white-clad extra. Who becomes visible again, and starts to dance, once Rajendra and Vyjantimala start to dance in the foreground, another white jacket dancing pair appears behind Raj in the upper right, and we have a new triangle forming. Or, look at 5:50, it seems simple, but directly behind Raj Kapoor are two other men with mustaches, forming a little triangle mustache group. And the other two are perfectly in line with their heads angled just so to match up with Raj’s and give us mustache-mustache-mustache and another triangle.
Okay, I just looked at a 5 minute song sequence, but this movie is well over 3 hours long, and every single second of it is just as brilliant. I can’t imagine being able to do something like this. I mean, can you? To keep in your mind over a 14,280 seconds of film and know exactly how each one should look? And to have that going on in addition to coming up with the story, picking the costumes, the songs, the cast, finding the funding, and, oh yes, also starring in it? That’s what I mean by genius. Doing something that no other human could even conceive of doing. Talking to Raj Kapoor about his film process would be like trying to talk to Superman about what it is like to fly. Unless you happen to be Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles or Guru Dutt.
Oh, that reminds me of a Chaplin story! When he was filming City Lights, he grew to hate working with the heroine. She wasn’t really an “actress”, more a pretty face socialite. And one of the things he kept working and working on was the exact way he wanted her character to hand his character a flower. He had a particular gesture in mind, and he was never happy with how she did it. And she just couldn’t understand what he was getting at, because he was a genius and no one could understand his vision. The reason I was thinking of that is, at the end of this film, Vyjantimala drops flowers into the ganges, and the way she does it is just perfect. So Raj Kapoor was luckier than Chaplin, because his heroine was brilliant in her own way, and able to understand what he needed.
Vyjantimala has an almost impossible task in this film, because she has to be as good as Nargis, but different, but the same. Nargis was Raj’s heroine on and off screen for 10 years. And this is the movie where he processes his emotions over their break-up, and gives Vyjantimala the speech he imagined coming from Nargis’ mouth, and forces her to listen to the argument he wishes he could have made. And at the same time, Vyjantimala has to be able to play the Raj Kapoor heroine that Nargis helped him create. Beyond the white sari (which all RK heroines wear), there is that sense of confidence and sprightliness and spirit and intelligence and independence, but at the same time tradition and Indian womanhood and faithful devotion. And she has to be both a girl and a woman. And passionately hopelessly in love, but still chaste. And comfortable in the modern world, but holding to old-fashioned values. It’s basically impossible for anyone but Nargis.
But Vyjantimala pulls it off! And she makes it her own, adding a certain delicacy and joy that wasn’t present in the Nargis version of this character. Her transformation over the course of the film is amazing, going from a somewhat spoiled and impulsive young woman, to a determined and devoted wife, who is still strong enough to speak her own mind. And never making it feel like two different people.
But before I can talk about the brilliance of the performances, I have to get into plot stuff, so, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Like I said, it’s all about the triangle. Raj Kapoor is a big hearted warm and loving poor boy. He grew up with Rajendra Kumar and Vyjantimala who are both of higher status. He has always loved Vyjantimala and he has always found strength in his friendship with Rajendra. But when they grew up, Vyjantimala falls in love with Rajendra, not Raj.
Only, all her efforts to indicate this to both boys go in vain. Raj decides to “earn” her love, to rejoin the Indian air force and be a war hero, so her excuses that they are at a different status and she couldn’t imagine him as a husband will go away. And Rajendra refuses to listen to her protestations of love, or admit his own feelings, because he knows Raj loves her as well and he feels it would be a betrayal.
But then Raj goes missing in action. Vyjantimala and Rajendra are both miserable, because they do love him, in their own way. Over a year after Raj goes missing, Rajendra is finally brave enough to speak his heart to Vyjantimala, no longer feeling it would be a betrayal. Just as their engagement is about to be finalized, Raj re-appears! Now a war hero, noble, a worthy husband for Vyjantimala. Rajendra backs out of his engagement to her, and her marriage to Raj is arranged. Vyjantimala speaks out to Rajendra, furious at how he has arranged her life, but he holds firm that they cannot continue their relationship since it would not only break Raj’s heart, but could literally kill him in his fragile recently recovered state. Vyjantimala takes her medicine and agrees to marry him.
This is one of those scenes were I am just in awe of how good she is in this movie. I may need to finally watch the 1955 Devdas so I can see her take on Chandramukhi! She has an angry conversation with Rajendra, and runs upstairs. Then, Raj arrives, all happy about the engagement, talking with her parents and Rajendra, and it is unclear if she will come back down and go through with it. But then she does, stiff-backed and sari-clad, and she manages to convey to Raj a”yes, I am your wife”, Rajendra “You are dead to me now” and her parents “I’m not a child anymore”, all just in her posture and way of holding her head. That dance training really shows in moments like this! Her and Madhuri and Sridevi are just on a whole over level with their physical acting.
And then there is the honeymoon sequence, which famously is the first time an Indian film went abroad. I always heard of it as just a footnote to film history, and a visionary marketing ploy, to get the audiences in for this new experience of seeing Switzerland, London, and Paris onscreen. But seeing it in context, there is a reason these characters needed to go overseas at that moment.
It’s more than the usual honeymoon. Yes, it is important that Vyjantimala and Raj get to know each other without their families around or any other interference, just like Raakhee and Shashi in a similar situation in Kabhi Kabhi. But going to Europe adds a whole other layer to it. It’s not just them getting to know each other in isolation, it’s them building a whole new world together, having experiences that no one else from back home can share. And, at the same time, bringing home with them to the greater world in a way that no one else around them can understand. There is a moment on the Eiffel Tower, when Raj sees a French couple kissing, and tries to embrace Vyjantimala, who shyly covers her head with her sari. And two French women in the background see them and say “Oh! Indian?” to which Raj proudly says “Yes! Indian!” They may be on the Eiffel Tower, they may be enjoying themselves, but they are also carrying with them an Indian sense of modesty and decorum. It’s a unique experience that will forever tie them together as a couple, that makes them truly husband and wife in a way that just a marriage and a home in India would not.
And then we get to the final love triangle, which is where Raj’s issues with Nargis come spilling out. But since he is such a brilliant filmmaker, he couldn’t stop himself from seeing her side of the story, and even Sunil Dutt’s side of things. In Sangam, Raj finds an old unsigned love letter from Rajendra to Vyjantimala. Vyjantimala can’t bring herself to tell him who wrote the letter, not because she wants to protect Rajendra (the European honeymoon has bonded her to Raj in a way that dwarfs her previous attachment to Rajendra), but because she knows it would destroy Raj to learn that his best friend courted the woman he loves. In real life, Raj claims he found a love letter from Sunil Dutt torn up in the trash in Nargis’ dressing room, and it broke his heart. He also claims that she started wearing heels (Sunil Dutt was 6’1″ and Raj was 5’9″ and always embarrassed about his height).
That sequence is similar to what Raj went through with Nargis in real life, but in his film, Raj is able to see Nargis’ side of things. It is Nargis speaking through Vyjantimala, and explaining her position when she left Raj Kapoor, her married lover, for Sunil Dutt, the man who could make her his wife. Yes, she loved a man once. Yes, it was real love. But now she is married, and marriage changes everything. Love dies and goes away, marriage is real and lasting. She cannot feel anything for her past love, even if she wanted to, marriage has erased all of that. And in this case, Raj Kapoor is playing Sunil Dutt. The husband who has to make his peace with his wife’s past, to understand that love may have been there before, but it has nothing to do with their marriage.
And then I guess Raj Kapoor decides the only solution is to kill himself? Because that’s what happens here, Rajendra playing the former lover that Raj was in real life shoots himself for the sake of his lovers new marriage. The only way to fully remove the former lover from being a block between the husband and wife is for him to die. Well, or take the other option that Raj went with in real life, have a rebound affair with Vyjantimala that everyone in India knows about, while you are filming a movie that works through all your emotions over your past love affair with a woman who is now married to someone else.