Director: Raj Kapoor
Cast: Nargis, Kamini Kaushal, Nigar Sultana
Synopsis: Kewal goes against his father’s wishes and opens a theater.
Until his death in 1988, Raj Kapoor was a Hindi megastar whose popularity in his native land has perhaps only been equalled by Amitabh Bachchan. Aag (Fire) was 23-year-old Kapoor’s debut as a director and producer, and marked the beginning of a successful movie partnership with the actress, Nargis (they would go on to appear in a further 14 movies together through the late forties and fifties). Although he was already an established actor, Kapoor still had difficulty finding a distributor for this film, which was the first to be produced under his RK Films banner, and vividly remembered (perhaps with a little romantic hindsight) carrying the cans of film from office to office in his search for distribution. Considering his age, and the fact that many of the cast and crew were still in their twenties, the film stands as both a remarkable achievement and testimony to the talent of a man working in a country whose cinema is often overlooked and under-rated by western audiences.
Aag tells the story of Kewal, an intense and passionate young man, haunted by memories of Nimmi, his childhood love, from whom he was parted when Nimmi’s parents moved to Bombay. Kewal and Nimmi shared a love of theatre that remains with him, and to which he turns when he fails academically. Teaming up with Rejan (Prem Nath) a wealthy young man with artistic aspirations, Kewal begins a theatre troupe in an old theatre owned by Rejan, and hires a destitute girl (Nargis) as his leading lady. As the opening night draws near, a romantic triangle forms that leads to tragedy…
In Kewal, writer Inder Raj Anand has created a typically romanticised version of Indian youth, infused with an improbable and highly idealised view of love and noble intentions. Kewal suffers an angst derived not so much from the rejection of social values typified by the western anti-hero that would become something of a stereotype after James Dean in the 1950s, but from a desire to conform, to win the approval of his parents, and to present his view of love to the public through his plays. But there is also a darker side to Kewal, sparked by his search for his childhood love. This is something of a half-hearted search, it has to be said; Kewal doesn’t so much look for the real Nimmi as search for traces of her in every woman that he meets. The juxtaposition between such an intensely romantic story within the dark and brooding framework in which it is set is tangible, and works extremely well. We watch the ten-year-old Kewal, from the POV of the bus that is taking Nimmi from him, growing smaller at the end of a rutted, dusty road, and it is this theme of loss and unfeeling fate that overshadows both the film and Kewal’s life.
The reason for Kapoor’s enduring popularity in his homeland was his keen understanding of what a commercial audience was looking for and, despite the dark nature of the film — and there is a wonderfully expressionistic use of shadows and light throughout — he manages to include a number of popular songs, and that brand of overwrought acting, so popular with Indian audiences, that veers dangerously close to histrionics. The result is that there is an occasional inconsistency in tone that grates a little, and a lengthy running time in which the basic plot could have been told twice over by a western director. Despite this, Aag is a fine example of the heights Bollywood can reach, and acts as an antidote to the kind of lightweight, dance-filled pap so often churned out these days by the Indian studios.
(Reviewed 18th December 2006)