For those unfamiliar with the history of Indian cinema, there was a time before the Indian film industry coined the iconic name “Bollywood,” known as the “golden age” of Indian cinema. This period lasted from the late 1940s to the 1960s and is now recognized as the era in which some of the best Indian films of all time were created. The most popular movies made during this age are characterized by their heavy social commentary reflecting a newly independent India and ability to create controversy by challenging Indian society’s norms and traditions.
My absolute favorite trope to come out of this transformative period of Indian cinema is the innovation of the modern love story or the idea of choosing who you love. This was, of course, in opposition to the Indian tradition of arranged marriages between those of the same class or caste. The first ever Indian film I ever saw was unsurprisingly a love story-oriented one and remains to be my favorite one of all time: Awāra (1951) or, in English, The Vagabond.
While the plot of most Indian movies is not summarized easily, here’s my best attempt for Awāra without spoiling:
A young poor boy named Raj is abandoned by his father before he is born, leaving him to a life of poverty with his mother. For the sake of his and his mother’s survival, Raj turns to a life of crime as a thief and grows up knowing nothing other than his corrupt lifestyle. Everything changes when he is reunited with his childhood love, Rita, a young, wealthy girl now studying to be a lawyer. The two fall into a passionate romance, but Raj’s true identity remains unknown to Rita. Raj realizes he must choose between continuing to live a life of crime and repenting to fully be with the love of his life.
There’s a lot more to the story than I’ve mentioned in this abridged version, but that’s the overall gist. Over the course of a hefty three hours and thirteen minutes, Awāra unapologetically asks bold questions of good and evil, class and social hierarchy, and most of all, love through a well-developed fictional narrative.
What makes Awāra such a special film is its portrayal of love and how it was incredibly ahead of its time. Before the passing of India’s Hindu Marriage Act, love stories like Raj and Rita’s were unheard of both on-screen and in real life. Romantic relationships or marriages between members of different social classes or castes were illegal, and Indian tradition dictated that the only way you could get married was if it was arranged by your family. Even when the Hindu Marriage Act passed in 1955, allowing members of different classes to marry, the practice was discouraged in most social settings. The people still clung to the age-old tradition of arranged marriage regardless of the new policy. So, you can imagine the risk Kapoor took telling the story of a poor criminal and a wealthy lawyer falling in love independently in the year 1951 before such a thing was legal.
While the film openly defied Indian social norms and traditions, Awāra remains one of the most popular Indian films of all time both in India and overseas. By telling a story of what love can be and where it can manifest in life’s unpredictable situations, Awāra directly criticized Indian tradition and introduced its own ideas of what love could be rather than portraying what it already typically was. Directors like Kapoor paved the way for many Indian films that would take the same trope and run, becoming an auteur of the modern love story of Indian cinematic history. But above all, Awāra brought to life what was only a fantasy to people in India before its release: the freedom to choose who you love because you love them.