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70 years of Aag: The film that launched RK Films

The directorial debut of Raj Kapoor, Aag (released on 6 August 1948) was the first film in which the actor-filmmaker shared the screen with actress Nargis.

Sonal Pandya

A 23-year-old Raj Kapoor, launched as a leading actor in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal (1947), made a bold and risky decision to act in, produce and direct Aag (1948) under his own banner RK Films. The son of actor Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj decided to frame the story of his first production in slightly personal terms. He followed his father into the profession from stage to screen, his heart was more in the celluloid world than in the world of theatre.

Aag, written by Inder Raj Anand, was the story of Kewal Khanna, a young man who is besotted by the theatre at a young age and yearns for his childhood sweetheart, Nimmi, in every girl he meets. It is this dual obsession that shapes his life and the film.

In the book Raj Kapoor: The One and Only Showman, the filmmaker revealed that his early films as director, including Aag, were influenced by the foreign films he saw, especially those from Italian cinema. In 1952, directors Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini had visited Mumbai (then Bombay) for a film festival where Raj saw their films. He also got a chance to speak with Zavattini, who was De Sica’s screenwriter.

Aag, made at a modest budget, told the tragic tale of a storyteller, Kewal, who wants his stories to be told on stage. The passion he feels for his stories and for those who are involved, helping him tell those stories, consumes him, when he is unwittingly caught in a love triangle with his producer Rajan (Prem Nath) and his lead actress (Nargis) who he calls Nimmi.

Kewal narrates the tale of his life to his new bride Sudha (Nigar Sultana) in flashback and reveals how as a young boy he was captivated by the arts. His friend Nimmi was by his side throughout it all, until her family moved away, and he never saw her again. They were about to stage the play Bilwa Mangal when she left. Raj's youngest brother, Shashi, played the role of the young Kewal in the film.

Later, in college, Kewal meets a young woman Nirmala (Kamini Kaushal) who he feels can be his partner and muse, but she too abandons him just as he is about to stage his play, like his childhood friend Nimmi. Eventually, he gets an opportunity to work again in theatre, thanks to his friend and benefactor Ranjan. He casts Nargis as the lead in the play.

This ‘Nimmi’ falls madly in love with him but he is unable to reciprocate as Rajan, too, fancies her and on the day of the play’s premiere, Kewal burns one half of his face – he lets the ‘aag’ (fire) consume him.

As Kewal tells his new wife of his past, she too has her own story to tell him. Thankfully, Kewal gets his happy ending. The film was only an average success. Raj’s next film Barsaat (1949) was a blockbuster.

Today, Aag is remembered for launching the great screen pair of Raj Kapoor and Nargis. The filmmaker was visiting the newly built studio, Famous at Mahalaxmi, Mumbai to shoot Aag and discovered that Jaddanbai was making her film Romeo And Juliet (1947) there. He decided to stop by her Marine Drive house to speak to her about the acoustics of the studio, when he rang the doorbell, however, Jaddanbai’s 16-year-old actress daughter Nargis answered the door.

“What happened then was what you saw in Bobby (1973), when Dimple opens the door to find Chintoo [Rishi Kapoor] there. Jaddanbai’s daughter was making bhajias [fried snack] inside, she heard the doorbell and came running. As she was talking to me she nervously placed one hand on her forehead and all the aata [flour] stuck to her maatha [forehead] and that is exactly how I made Dimple look in Bobby,” he recalled in the book.

The actor-filmmaker thought he had seen an angel and rushed to his screenwriter Inder Raj Anand asking him to write Nargis into the screenplay. Though the actress is billed first in the film, she enters halfway through it.

Raj said of his frequent co-star of the 1950s, “Women have always meant a lot in my life, but Nargis meant more than anybody else. I used to tell her, ‘Krishna is my wife, she is the mother of my children; I want you to be the mother of my films.’ And that’s precisely what she was.”

Aag was also an ode to Prithviraj Kapoor and his decision to become an actor over his own father’s wishes to pursue a career as a lawyer. “I will never forget Aag,” the director said of his first film in the book, “It is a story of youth consumed by the desire for a brighter, more intense life.”

Book excerpt: Raj Kapoor reminisces about his first film Aag

Made just when a new India was emerging, the filmmaker tried to give voice to those who wanted to do something creative with their lives, other than the stable professions their parents had chosen for them. Ironically, this battle continues even today, 70 years later.

The RK Films banner would go on to make 20 more films, some great hits like Shree 420 (1955) and Sangam (1964), cult classics like Mera Naam Joker (1970) and some forgettable films like Dharam Karam (1975) and Biwi-O-Biwi (1981). But it all began with Aag and one man's passion to make something of his own inner ambitions and abilities.