When I saw Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420 I was astonished in equal parts by the magnetism of the stars and by Raj Kapoor's mastery of the art of entertainment. So I had high expectations for Awara ("vagabond") - perhaps too high, because while Awara was certainly an excellent film, it left me somewhat unengaged and disappointed.
Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor) considers himself a forward-thinking man, and bucks tradition and his family by marrying a widow. When his wife Leela (Leela Chitnis) is kidnapped and then mysteriously returned, though, Raghunath is overwhelmed by the wagging tongues of his community. He concludes, in shades of the Ramayana, that her honor is sullied, and casts her out of his household; she bears his son in squalor.
Raghunath continues to rise in esteem and eventually becomes a judge who deals harshly with criminals, believing them born of bad blood and incapable of rehabilitation. His son Raj (Raj Kapoor), meanwhile, under the influence of the same thug Jagga (K.N. Singh) who kidnapped his mother, grows up to be a crook and a bank robber. When he is reunited with his childhood friend Rita (Nargis) - who happens to be Judge Raghunath's ward - sparks fly, and Raj is torn between his desire to be good enough for her and his belief, fostered by Jagga, that he is no good for anything other than crime.
Like Shree 420, Awara explores a wide range of social themes. Dominated by ruminations on the question of nature versus nurture, it also addresses classism, injustice toward women, and other weighty issues. But where Shree 420 clothes its missive to post-partition India in a truly entertaining package, watching Awara it is difficult to shake the feeling of being educated. Everything, and everyone, is deadly serious. The tone is set by Prithviraj's clenched jaw and furrowed brow and carried through Raj's dour sarcasm, a bitterness that sours even the film's tender moments. The result is a movie that, despite the excellence of its craft, feels like work to watch.
There are unquestionable strengths to Awara. Raj Kapoor and Nargis turn in subtle and emotional performances. And Nargis's character Rita is a rare treat - a young woman who also happens to be a lawyer. She is cautioned against allowing her emotions (presumably a feminine weakness) to interfere with her rationality, but her introduction of compassion into the cold calculus of criminal justice is presented by the film as an unambiguous asset and the key to both Raj's and Raghunath's redemption. This is possibly Awara's most radical idea, the notion that criminals should be treated as redeemable individuals with the potential to rehabilitate, rather than as the mechanical sum of their breeding and past bad actions.
Awara also features a beautiful evergreen soundtrack, whose highlights include the title song, a creepy and gorgeous dream sequence in "Tere bina aag yeh chandni," and - especially - the cheeky "Dum bhar jo udhar munh phere,"in which Rita implores the bright full moon to give her and Raj some privacy for an amorous moment. But the film's sweet, engaging, or moving moments just aren't enough to overcome the general tone of gloom and preachiness. I realize that Shree 420 is an impossible standard to hold any film against (and that it was made after Awara), but Awara just misses striking that balance of offering its substantial message in a package that would make me want to watch the film again. It's a great film in many ways, but just a little ponderous, a little off.