Shree 420. 1955. India. Directed by Raj Kapoor. Image courtesy of Indian International Film Academy

Largely unknown in North America—except, of course, to millions of fans of South Asian descent—actor, director, and mogul Raj Kapoor (1924–1988) is revered not only in India but throughout the former Soviet world, the Middle East, and beyond for the films he made during the Golden Age of Indian cinema. This exhibition of eight legendary Kapoor films, presented in newly struck 35mm prints, offers an introduction to one of the most ravishing and influential periods of world cinema. Kapoor founded RK Films in 1948, and it became the most important Hindi studio of the post-Independence era—and the one most commonly associated with that nebulous and often misunderstood expression, “Bollywood.”

Fire (1948), Kapoor’s first film as producer and director, reflects German Expressionist influences, and established the modern-day, hyper-romantic style that would become his trademark—combining contemporary Hollywood melodrama with the moral lessons and metaphors of the “mythologicals”: special-effects-laden versions of tales from the Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Kapoor took the latent romanticism of prewar Indian commercial cinema and made it frank, intense, and personal, creating a new idiom for the expression of emotion that had little place in traditional Indian literature and drama.

As Elliot Stein writes in Raj Kapoor: The Showman Auteur of Indian Cinema, “Kapoor’s singular and gargantuan talent subsumes a variety of influences and affinities—[Charles] Chaplin, Frank Capra, Orson Welles—with even a touch of Russ Meyer apparent in the later work. At times, his oeuvre recalls the work of a 19th-century European literary giant whose sympathy for the underdog, protean activity, inexhaustible energy and penchant for excess earned him fame and a national reputation as early in life as Kapoor. Yes, Raj Kapoor is—to a degree—the Victor Hugo of Indian cinema.” Introductory text and all film descriptions were written by Noah Cowan.

Curated by Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and organized by TIFF, IIFA, and RK Films, with the support of the Government of Ontario. Organized for MoMA by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.

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