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Celebrating the underdog

Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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The celluloid representation of the underdog has been so varied in its manifestations that its range is as wide as its context and the subject raises critique, debate and argument only when a film like SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE manages to bag Oscar nominations. The controversy around the film's title is superfluous because the underdog is omnipresent in life, and in art and literature.

The underdog has been universally celebrated by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time - Charlie Chaplin. Every few weeks, outside the movie theatre in virtually any American town in the late 1910s stood the life-size cardboard figure of a small tramp - outfitted in tattered, baggy pants, a cutaway coat and vest, impossibly large, worn-out shoes and a battered derby hat - bearing the inscription 'I AM HERE TODAY'. An advertisement for a Charlie Chaplin film was a promise of happiness, of that precious, almost shocking moment when art delivers what life cannot, when experience and delight become synonymous, and our investments yield the fabulous, unmerited bonanza we never get past expecting. The tramp is both unique and universal, a secular figure who did not speak when he featured in silent films so his language is universal that is easily understood by every man, woman and child across time and space. He is a man every underdog across the world could identify with, and can do so even today.

Indian cinema's underdog was probably born with Raj Kapoor's AWARA vesting a certain degree of respect and acceptance to the underdog. The ''underdog'' is ''a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest (and/or) a person who has little status in society'', says The Oxford Concise Dictionary. If one reads between the lines, AWARA (1951) is a social satire on the futility of man-made class divisions based on one's birth. It is a powerful celluloid debate on heredity versus environment. The film established Raj Kapoor as the Chaplin-like 'tramp' of Hindi cinema and remains an all-time hit in Russia and China, and to this day millions of middle-aged Russians and Chinese can hum its title song.




John Chacha (David) of Raj Kapoor's BOOT POLISH (1954) is a brilliant depiction of the underdog presented as a bootlegger who, before landing behind bars, teaches the two orphan kids Belu and Bhola the true meaning of living a life of dignity instead of begging for a living. SRI 420 (1955) tells the story of a young and ambitious man who believes he can conquer the world (or in this case, Bombay), only to realise too late that it is the world that has conquered him. The film makes a significant comment on the social and psychological function of dress for a man. As a launderer, Raj deals with visible and arranged surfaces. These surfaces can hide and reveal at the same time.

In JAGTE RAHO (1956) directed by Sambhu Mitra, Raj Kapoor plays a simple villager who has come to Calcutta and is looking for a glass of water to quench his thirst. He steps into an apartment block unknowingly, and the residents take him for a thief. As he goes from apartment to apartment trying to evade arrest, he discovers that the so called respectable urbanites are the real thieves and commit far bigger crimes - moral, hypocritical and physical behind the four walls of their homes. About Raj Kapoor in JAGTE RAHO, British critic Geoff Brown wrote: ''Kapoor's character is cut from Chaplin's cloth. He starts out sharing food with a dog, squatting on the pavement, and spends most of the film acting in pantomime, darting in and out of rooms, hiding in a drum, shinnying down a drainpipe, periodically pursued by a lively crowd of residents wielding anything from sticks to broken tennis rackets.

The next phase of the celluloid underdog that remains archived in Indian cinema is Yash Chopra's DEEWAR making the term 'underdog' synonymous with Amitabh Bachchan's screen name in the film, Vijay. In fact, Danny Boyle is reported to have carried over the influence of DEEWAR into SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE as like DEEWAR, it is ''The story of two brothers of whom one is completely after money while the younger one is honest and not interested in money.''

CHECK OUT: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and the magic of Anil Kapoor



Bachchan's characters, ranging from Vijay Verma, the underdog who becomes the underworld kingpin in DEEWAR, the illegitimate son shunned by society in TRISHUL and LAWAARIS or the vengeful Vijay Dinanath Chauhan of AGNEEPATH or as the wronged orphan in MUQADDAR KA SIKANDAR, are celluloid underdogs battling odds, crying for dignity and even dying in the process.

The screen persona of Amol Palekar beginning with RAJANIGANDHA (1974) is that of a middle-class, educated and diffident underdog who does not expect to win, but actually does win, surprising himself more than the others. He is famous for his image of the ''Middle-class Everyman,'' a euphemism for the underdog, who struggles to get a job (GOL MAAL), to get a flat (GHARONDA) and a girlfriend/wife (BAATON BAATON MEIN ). His acting was naturalistic and understated, running contrary to the histrionic, melodramatic performances typical in the Indian mainstream at that time.

Nearly a hundred years later, Charlie Chaplin is still watched with joy and pathos only he could get across. Rarely did he quit his shabby hat and large-sized boots and walking stick to display 'versatility' or 'range.' In a 1995 worldwide survey of film critics, Chaplin was voted the greatest actor in movie history. He was born an underdog, and spent his childhood in shabbily furnished rooms, state poorhouses. He was never sure who his real father was. In the first decades of the 20th century, when weekly movie going was a national habit, Chaplin succeeded in giving global respect and recognition, turning the screen and the real underdog into a social comment and a work of art on celluloid. So, what's wrong with SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE?

(Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a national award-winning film writer and critic)

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