After World War II many Indian filmmakers turned to urban life and its harsh realities. The city became synonymous with jobs, wealth and excitement. But this was one edge of the sword. The other edge was exploitation, crime, sleaze and slums. Awaara was one of the films, which also looked at the latter and argues with nurture over nature ie Environment maketh the man.
With Awaara, Raj Kapoor created the tramp, the rootless vagabond living on his wits, inspired obviously by Chaplin. The tramp was an allegory for the innocent state of mind of the post Independent Indian. In post-partition India when the entire socio-political system was under stress and thousands of migrants poured into the cities, identification with Raj Kapoor's rootless Raju was plausible and easy. Although with Awaara, Raj Kapoor's social concerns become more pronounced, more than its social probe, Awaara is an astonishing even ingenious mixture of melodrama, romance and crime.
Further, Raj Kapoor's musical sense and feel for rhythm and his personal involvement in music sittings have ensured the highest quality of music in his films and Awaara is no exception. The songs of Awaara (Awaara Hoon, Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi, Ab Raat Guzarnewali Hai, Ek Bewafa se Pyar Kiya, Hum Tumse Mohabbat Karke Sanam and Dum Bhar Jo Udhar Moon Phere among others) are some of the most popular songs of Indian Cinema. Special mention must be made of the picturisation of Ek Do Teen, a sleazy dance on the streets with renowned dancer Cuckoo. As she dances men letch and paw at her and Raj Kapoor actually drowns out the song and brings in their garrulous laughter over the soundtrack, a device that works remarkably well.
The film also works primarily due to the incestual casting of real life father and son, Prithviraj Kapoor and Raj Kapoor as the judge and his estranged criminal son, Raj's younger brother Shashi as the younger Raju and real life lovers Raj Kapoor and Nargis as lovers in the film with solid on-screen chemistry between them particularly as Nargis dances in sexual frenzy on the boat during the Dum Bhar song or the scene on the beach when she calls him a 'junglee' and he retaliates by slapping her - Pure, Raw Passion!
The much talked about Ziegfield like dream sequence choreographed by Madame Simki among the clouds took three months to shoot and was apparently added on later to make the film more marketable and works as the highlight of the film.
The film and particularly the title song (Awaara Hoon) swept through Asia breaking box office records in the Middle-East being dubbed in Turkish, Persian and Arabic. Raj Kapoor and Nargis became popular pin ups in the bazaars of the Arab World. The film also swept Russia where it was called Bradyaga (Vagabond). (An interesting fact here is that the villain of the film KN Singh did hid own dubbing in Russian!) Raj Kapoor and Nargis became superstars in Russia. When they visited Russia, bands played Awaara Hoon at airports, a puppet show by a leading Russian puppeteer had in its final play puppets representing Raj Kapoor and Nargis! The Russian enthusiasm lead to the distribution of his later film Shree 420 (1955) in Russia and though a success couldn't match up to the heady success of Awaara.
Awaara is also a cult favourite in China. (In fact the novelist Vikram Seth has a lovely anecdote that when he jamming with local musicians in Nanjing and when he was asked to sing something he began singing Awaara Hoon. Not only did the musicians provide the back up music, they sang along in Hindi!)
All in all Awaara is arguably the best film that Raj Kapoor ever made - a great film by a great filmmaker.