Hi everyone… Here’s that detailed observation of the dream-sequence in Raj Kapoor’s Awara which I had promised you! I’m in fact quite pleased I had set that aside, because there is so much in it, and even more than what my Western perspective can divine, I presume, because of the Indian references I don’t know.
First the context: the scene takes place as Raj, who has spent the day out with his sweetheart Rita (the boat scene), walks home that night, and is stopped by a blade pointed at him: his guru Jagga was waiting for him. The latter suspects him of softening and forgetting his old “friends”. Raj lies to him, and assures him he has a plan: he’s only visiting Rita’s rich household to win over her confidence so that he can steal a diamond necklace. (This in fact will happen later in the film, in a most dramatic way, and I marvel at Raj Kapoor’s mastery of his story: what is here a passing excuse, a mere idea, will become later a structural element of the scenario). Jagga is of course pleased at finding Raj his old self, but nevertheless threatens him, if by any chance he had in mind some double-dealing… and, laughingly, he shows him how the knife would work.
Raj’s dream starts with these thoughts in mind: he is obviously torn between his new found love for Rita and the false promise made to Jagga. These elements will combine to create the tension inside his dream, or nightmare, in fact. The first thing we see is this sea of twirling cloud or mist (an old cinema trick) indicating no doubt the separation between the world above and the world below. Regularly, Raj wades in it, emerges through it, or falls back into its midst. It envelops what is seen rising above it, the statues, the structures, Rita herself, and bathes them in a sort of unreality typical of how the cinema suggests dreams should look like. This is a convention, because (at least it’s my case) nobody especially dreams of clouds, but this convention creates an atmosphere of suggestive revelation: clouds can both hide and reveal, depending on their thickness and movement. So we are placed in this moving symbolic world where what is visible one instant can be invisible the next. And that’s oneiric enough.
This fog can be seen as characteristic of Raj’s situation too: trapped as he is in the half-lit world of hypocrisy and self-lies, it’s fitting that his conscience, Hamlet-like, transmits him pictures of a sea of troubles and enigmas. He too could say:
To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Raj never thinks of suicide, but death is very present, as we shall see, and certainly his moral dilemma is as piercing. The image of the sea is not far-fetched, because one of the structures in the dream is that sort of winding jetty, where the two of them will meet Jagga at the end. The sea of clouds represents Raj’s conscience, overshadowed by guilt and misgivings. When at the end of the sequence, he falls into a sort of tempest of wind and noise, it’s as if he’s drowning, falling, swallowed by the troubles he cannot lift from his soul.
Now, what presents itself before his mind’s eyes? First, a spiral tower, spilling over with white mist, that seems to connect the earth and the skies, but we can see neither its base, nor its top. We see nothing but its slanting column and that spiral platform winding around it. Regularly, during the dream, dancers and the two lovers themselves, will ascend it, chasing one another, rising, rising, but to nowhere! Then we have classical structures, such as columns reunited by a sloping cornice, which dancers use as a slide, for example.
Why these structures? I think they’re there as reminders of a world filled with harmonious objects, but their strange uniqueness hints at their representing ideas, or musical language, at any rate ideal realities which belong to the world of beauty and truth.
Then Raj dreams of a desperate-looking Rita, dressed in a star-studded robe waiting for him, singing for him to come. A fantastic pillar of twisted marble rises behind her. Slow priestess-looking dancers hover on the cloudy sea towards the staircased mound where she pines away: “without you this moonlight is fire… come and quench my thirst…”
The association with fire was perhaps easy to make, because in the next scene Raj sees himself in a sort of obscure inferno, almost within the claws of a huge grimacing devil monster, with hypnotic rhythmical music! The raging monster is only a scaly statue, but it’s amazingly expressive, and Raj, in an attempt to escape it, tries to push it back, and, like in dreams, feels he can do nothing: he’s caught, and he clasps his head, his ears, the devil is still there, eating him from the inside! Then amid flames and heated smoke that (very realistically) make our vision swerve, some frenzied adorers of this monstrous idol appear, and dance in a trance in front of it, as if killing fallen enemies with an invisible spear! They all have pointed ears, they are his slaves. Without transition, we see Raj sitting inside the callous palm of the great devil, singing “yeh nahi zindagi”, and we then discover the awesome landscape of Hell.
Raj Kapoor could have pictured a barren landscape, or a dark pit with spectres, for his Hell. Instead he chooses to people this no-man’s land with only heads, enormous, fascinating skulls. There are also bones, and skeletal hands screeching soundlessly at the back, but the skulls are the real creative marvels. Their size first: I’m sure you have sometimes, in the mountains, or at a rocky beach, had fun trying to make out some recognisable traits on the haphazard shapes created by Nature. Well, here it’s this eerie impression, only magnified ten times, and systematically repeated. The landscape is nothing but these transmogrified faces created by your fears, and yet so real. They’re projections of Raj’s guilt and pain. They’re his poor panicky self, multiplied and reduced to an insane multi-mirror like landscape by some indescribable evil power. A very effective trick has been to put projectors in the sockets of one of the skulls: the face thus reminds the spectators of many fearful apparitions seen in horror movies. The skulls seem to enjoy the sight, to relish Raj’s torment, and the devil’s slaves, beating the tempo of their war-dance, chasing him with their wriggling fingers and death pale faces.
And it isn’t over yet, for Raj, who has been circled by a ring of fire (“I am burning alive in the fire of life”), is now pushed into the arms of a gargoyle-looking skeleton who shuts its fore-arms on him. Three oversize dead monkey heads are behind him, jeering at him, adding their animality to the punishment: man in Hell is reduced to less than an animal, they seem to imply.
Raj, crazy with fear, escapes the skeleton cage, with its fingers like spider webs. He whimpers: “I don’t want this Hell, I want the spring!” and passes through the crowd of death slaves who continue, insect-like now, their horrible dancing. Through the smoke, we catch a glimpse of Raj scrambling up on some rocks and away.
Perhaps today we are immune to such visualisations of hell, but first Raj Kapoor doesn’t say it is a Hell, it’s just part of a dream, and then even if our understanding of hell as being a torturing solitude away from all sources of life and love has transformed the “place” into a “state”, we cannot help admiring this effort at representing something of this state, precisely. Raj is less in a precise place than in an exteriorised conscience where the forces of guilt and shame conjure up the shapes he has tries to sweep under the carpet. Perhaps that was the strength of those medieval shows where Hell was made visible, as opposed to a more intellectual representation of punishment that cannot jolt you into repentance.
After this series of dark, intense scenes where Raj tries to fight away from condemnation, we see him emerge above the mist; he walks up the steps, but stumbles, and each time needs Rita to lift him up out of his sore spot. This will happen again and again: Raj will never bask freely in the light of Paradise; he will always carry with him the weight of his human guilt. Here Rita his guide reminds one of Beatrice, who guided Dante through the various circles of Paradise (Raj had no Virgil to guide him through the Inferno). The spiral tower, the various steps also belong to this reference. One should underline the symmetrical construction of the dream: the realm of ideal beauty is strictly opposed to that of horrendous sinfulness, just as life is opposed to death, and Gods to devils.
Precisely, the Paradise scenes abound with very suggestive visions of godheads, all belonging to the Hindu tradition: there is the 4-headed Brahma, the all-powerful creator of the universe, then perhaps (confirmation, anyone?) a seated statue of Vishnu the Conserver, and finally the 4-armed Shiva: the 3 greatest divinities of the Hindu religion. The ethereal beauty of these scenes comes from their contrast with the fiery ones in Hell, and of course the music and the dancing resonates with this peace and harmony. Yet, in spite of such verse:
“You are the apple of my eye,
The light of my life;
This is a thirst from my childhood
My beloved has come home”,
there will be no union, only hopes from Rita and dazed smiles from Raj. He is still surrounded by the clouds of hesitations and foreboding. The groups of dancers might well signify pleasure and orderliness, in his soul there is no such elevation possible. Rita runs ahead of him, calling him, encouraging him, but as soon as he approaches her, she disappears in the cloud. Her own
dancing is a mixture of taunting femininity and mysterious divinity-like distance.
The towering Shiva-like statue represents well this broadening of perspectives: in front of it the dancers are more geometrically oriented, a prelude to a tightening of the atmosphere, or some judgement perhaps. Shiva both destroys and restores, in the Hindu pantheon.
Then comes the epilogue. In a last concretisation of Raj’s tortured conscience, we see both lovers walk away from the God on the winding jetty, just above the sea of clouds. Its pathway is lit with starry lanterns. The music accelerates, and then day changes to night. A moon, a dark sky reveals the arch-enemy, whose presence was so far hidden, but who has been pulling the ropes of Raj’s conscience throughout the dream. What’s good about this scene is its parallelism with the motifs of the giant: Jagga’s body becomes a towering evil genie that our little careless Aladdin has let out of its lamp! Instead of granting wishes, this evil giant will remind his slave of his own promises; Rita’s body might well try to defend her lover, it is no use, the huge knife comes menacingly closer, and we hear Jagga’s devilish laugh that mocks Raj’s attempts to escape him, or save himself through love.
The tempest that ensues is Raj’s realisation that Jagga is stronger, that he has gotten hold of his mind. Rita cannot catch him, and she disappears, amid the wind, the enveloping clouds and Raj’s frantic calls “Rita!” She has become a phantom. And then as in a cataclysmic Armageddon-like, sci-fi movie ending, we see Raj powerless at stopping the fall of the gods: one after the other, their immense height crashes to the ground. The only thing Raj can do is hold his ears in despair, while all the symbols of the divine and the eternal forces are thrown down. The power of this scene mesmerizes, because it possesses a logic that indeed belongs to nightmares. What Raj wanted to reach and couldn’t, somehow reaches him but in a destructive revengeful and anti-self purpose. Because of his treason, he condemns himself to a blasphemous murder of the godheads. He renders himself responsible for the world’s atheism.
I think through this richly poetic scene, Raj Kapoor the director wants to express the feelings and the aspirations that inhabits him, as well as his quest for purity and fulfilment. I believe he is saying that the soul cannot remain in the realm of innocence, and when it tries, it fails. Of course this is his personal understanding of the life of the mind, and it’s rather pessimistic. Yet because the structure of this dream drama is so simple and so powerful, it acquires a universality, a clarity that evokes man’s pilgrimage on earth, a pilgrimage through the shades of doubt and guilt, a pilgrimage towards goodness and ideal love, towards the purity, the truth, that the heart needs as its food and cannot live without, even if it is destroyed in the process.