Raj Kapoor's films are fraught with existential drama in all its absurdity and meaninglessness. Yet where conventional existentialists are hopeless pessimists, Raj Kapoor's heroes are happy good for nothings with an abiding faith in the self and the future.
Not all is melancholic in Raj Kapoor's films; there is a happy twist and humor in all of of his tales so as to dispel the gloom and nausea of the human condition. It is really the dawn of socialist India after centuries of decadent British rule. India the dependent nation is now cut off from its British moorings and must survive on its own. There is so little money in the treasury, so few stocks of food grains so that everywhere hunger and malnutrition stalk the land.
Yet when all seems lost, India's bedraggled humanity girds up its loins and begins to share whatever it has. It is the outpouring of love for one's own land that ignites the spark to self-reliance and contentment to do with little. Morning tea is all that's available for breakfast, lunch is uncertain but there is sure to be an evening meal with the family members after they adjourn home after work or just looking for work. Somehow even in the bleakest economic environment of sociaIist India everyone manages to earn his two rotis and dal.
It is the very lack of shelter and lack of material possessions that seems to infuse Raj Kapoor's characters with joy and happiness free as they are from the clutter of home and hearth, of materialism and the quest for private property. Love that dominating emotion that permeates all of Raj Kapoor's films, is poignantly felt when men and women are stripped bare of all possessions and property so that freedom to choose one's own partner can no longer be denied,
Here in socialist India we have the saga of poor people clinging to each others' bodies for warmth and shelter as there is no hearth for anyone but a spot on the footpath. After the terror of the long night when policemen and the seth's (master's) henchmen terrorize the hutments of the poor, the victims raise a prayer and and invocation to the Lord: "Oh morning when will it come, when the clouds of sadness will melt and the dew of peace will rain down."
The rain itself becomes a metaphor of redemption and succor in a land where there is so little to cling for support. It is the magic liquid that washes away all gloom and misery and heralds a time for celebration. Yet even with the destitution and denial of socialist India men and women do fall in love, marry and procreate which in itself is a miracle because their progeny have survived to this day.
As always and almost in every film, Raj Kapoor tries to reconcile Indians with their own predicament. There simply is no room to run away from India and every Indian must make the best of a bad situation that he finds himself in.
The street assumes a critical importance for Raj Kapoor. Here is a world of cars and pollution where the rich and poor are caught in the musical beat of the city's rhythm. There are tales beckoning from every street corner as there are adventures.
Nobody needs to despair of getting bored; just look at the footpath and see the myriad urban mysteries unfold. You must not falter one step on the street but continue walking in celebration of life. When you stop, death is waiting to snatch you. That is what it means to be street smart.
In Raj Kapoor's films love is a recurring motifs and it can conquer all odds. It engenders non-violence which is the leitmotif of independent India now that the means of coercion employed by the British rule have been reduced to a minimum. Non-violence in turn gives rise to the rule of law. No one is punished arbitrarily and legal procedure must be followed to determine guilt and innocence.
In one film we have Raj Kapoor wrongly accused of theft and beaten up because the vestiges of British rule remain to haunt Indians of the tyranny of the foreign ruler who lets off the rich and punishes the poor with stiff sentences. We have Raj Kapoor saluting the portraits of Nehru and Gandhi as if to signify the dawn of new era where justice to the poor would be assured.
Most of Raj Kapoor's films are love stories where hearts are broken never to be mended again. In very few films the lovers get a chance to unite which only reflects the realities of tradition-bound India. Arranged marriages await everyone no matter who is involved in a love affair. The iron laws of tradition remain entrenched even in socialist India and individuals wage futile battles to resist the conformism and rigidity of Hindu convention.
The plots in Raj Kapoor's films do not pit villains against heroes or man against nature; neither do they involve any grandiose battles with armed combat. They are really affairs of the heart with the hero always setting on a quest to find his true love.
The great dramatic movements of the day do not shake Raj Kapoor's movies; it is really the little man who is struggling against odds to find his little place which will house his family. This tells the true story of socialist India and how difficult it was to find private space in this vast land where opportunities simply did not exist. Everyone has to find a seth (master) to work for and thereby undergo the bittersweet misfortune of a paid job.
In Raj Kapoor's films the poetry of love is the dominant theme in every story. Here the lovers love each other passionately but are separated by circumstances beyond their control. Thus in one movie we have Raj Kapoor giving up his true love because he is down with TB and senses that the end is near. This is tragedy at its most intense and the accompanying melodies are soulful and riveting. Happiness as always eludes the lovers and the audience is not disappointed.
That is precisely why Raj Kapoor's films are etched firmly in every Indian's heart because the endings are sad and strike a tragic chord. India is a land of sadness and yet the sadness is punctuated with joyous intervals. This is not existential pessimism but the melancholic streak in the Indian character which prefers tears over laughter.