Awaara ★★★½

I'm currently taking a graduate seminar on the history of Indian Cinema. While I feel like I have a strong footing on the general trends and history of most international cinemas (even Nollywood!), India (and really Bollywood) have always been somewhat outside my grasp and understanding. It's kind of the last major black hole of my film knowledge. There are course posting and comments and what not, so I'll be sharing some of those here with you guys to play along as well. #WatchIndianCinema

Last week, we discussed how much of Sant Tukaram embraced a very different type of aesthetic style based in a more presentation and devotional aspect with longer takes and tableaux style. Awaara is not just "of its time," it's often pushing the boundaries through its camerawork reminiscent of Orson Welles's deep focus experiments (an influence noted by Kapoor himself, touting his DP Radhu Karmakar as the man responsible). There is a highly complex understanding of space through continuity editing, extreme low-key lighting and slanted camera work that recalls American film noir (or to name another Welles influence, Carol Reed's The Third Man), and, if not elaborate, certainly motivated dollies and push-ins.

My point is not to say, "Look! Indian Cinema is sophisticated because it matches contemporary Hollywood," but to note the global stylistic capital that is film noir, too often described as a purely American phenomenon. You can see noir style in works from Argentina, Japan, the Soviet Union, and many European countries through the late 1940s and early 1950s. And Awaara is not just noir style in theme but narrative too: the use of a flashback, a possible murder, a voiceover to tell us the story, and the theme of fatalism brought into the story. After all, the main tension of the narrative derives from which destiny—the tramp or the judge—will be Raj's future. Of course, that doesn't prevent the film from engaging this narrative through comedy, romance, musical sequences, and one big dream sequence. But it does also end on an ambiguous note, hopeful, but uncertain that Raj will achieve his dreams.

Key to much American film noir, however, is that the film's are evidently social critiques in a way that traditional Hollywood film reaffirm traditional values (this is a complete broadside against Hollywood melodrama, but allow the exception here). Awaara follows in this suit, by critiquing older generations for their "old rotten ideas" as one character tells Raghunath at one point, to the evident caste and class critique the film eventually turns from subtext to text. With Tukaram, we debated whether the film ultimately supposed the caste system or not, seeing its titular saint as the exception. I thought that Awaara might not make much of an argument about poverty—after all, Raj is technically of an upper class—but the film goes for the jugular as the protagonist delivers a passionate monologue about the problems of poverty in contemporary India, and with a 360 degree panning shot that implicates everyone in the room, and thus the audience. We might also connect this shot to what Chatterjee notes about the courtroom, a new setting for Indian cinema in 1951, as a place of Western rule: "In post-independence cinema it comes to represent all the legacies of the British legal system."* I'm curious, since we discussed the "social film" genre in India, whether this aspect of the film as actually more a product of Indian narrative and genre technique than one of a more global trend.

*Also of note is when and who uses English language idioms.