He's been called the ultimate showman, a cinema legend and one of India's most famous cultural figures. Yet in North America, few outside the South Asian community react at the mention of Raj Kapoor.

Now, a collaboration between the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Indian Film Academy is aiming to change that.

Raj Kapoor and The Golden Age of Indian Cinema is set to open July 1 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox as the IIFAs wrap a star-studded weekend promoting Indian film. On Sunday, a gala honouring Kapoor ahead of that retrospective, which ends Aug. 7, brought out some of Bollywood's biggest stars. 

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Actress Kareena Kapoor, shown in 2009, says this year's IIFAs are particularly significant because of the spotlight on her grandfather, Raj Kapoor. (Mustafa Quraishi/Associated Press)

The Kapoor clan, an Indian film dynasty, has already voiced its enthusiasm for the tribute of the screen legend's life and work, and will share fond memories of the Bollywood giant as the retrospective featuring 20 films kicks off next week.

Actress Kareena Kapoor, one of the most famous of the Kapoor grandchildren, told reporters in Mumbai that this year's IIFAs were particularly significant because of the spotlight on her grandfather.

"It's going to be very, very special, very emotional," she said. "I'm more excited about that than anything else because I think that's really made the Kapoors really honoured and very humbled."

Raj Kapoor, who died in 1988, is remembered as not only a hugely popular actor, but also a respected producer and director of films that have become Indian classics.

"For audiences who are unfamiliar with Raj Kapoor, the great thing about this retrospective is that it gives you the keys to Bollywood," said Noah Cowan, project curator and artistic director at the Lightbox, which is home to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Combination of Chaplin, Gable, Kelly

Finding a North-American comparison for Kapoor is a tall order.

As an actor, he combined elements of Gene Kelly, Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin, adapting key characteristics of their personalities for Indian audiences. Meanwhile, his efforts behind the camera could be likened to iconic Canadian actress and producer Mary Pickford.

Kapoor was king in what film aficionados call the "golden age" of Indian film — a period of hope and change in the aftermath of the country's 1947 independence from British rule.

By combining aspects of global cinema with the new social conditions in India, Cowan said Kapoor laid the foundations for what would come to be known as Bollywood.

"You get elements from Indian theatre, elements from Hollywood, musical elements and they get mixed up in this innovative way," said Cowan. "Raj Kapoor is the first guy to really harness all of these elements in a way that connected to audiences."

That connection with the masses during the 1950s and 60s extended beyond India's borders with Kapoor's films captivating audiences in the Middle East, Soviet Russia and China during a period when Hollywood films didn't go far from home. It's rumoured that Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong even had his own personal copy of Kapoor's 1951 hit Awaara.

"Frankly the Indians were making the best cinema at that time," said Cowan. "Hindi cinema is just as important in the history of cultural cinema as Hollywood."

A key feature of Kapoor's films was the strong moral messages they aimed to transmit. Infused with the nationalist dreams of Mahatma Gandhi and India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Kapoor's projects carried strong socialist themes, focusing on improving the conditions of the poor and exposing the excesses of the rich.

'Little guy' going to the big city

And those messages mattered.

"Love of cinema, and love of cinema-going is a much more intense experience in India," explained Cowan. "As a result the socio-political context of the Raj Kapoor films and other Golden Age filmmakers was incredibly important."

A common storyline featured the underprivileged "little guy" who travels to the big city, doesn't give up hope and triumphs against the odds, said Jyotika Virdi, a professor at the University of Windsor who specializes in Indian cinema.

According to Virdi, Kapoor's films tried to help Indian society makes sense of the new, urban, developing country in which they found themselves.

"Raj Kapoor is a filmmaker who represents a moment in Indian cultural history — the moment of independence, where there was a sense of hope for change but there was also a sense of the enormity of the project that lay before them," she said.

"He tried to make those principles and ideas accessible through his films. That's why he was a major icon."

The retrospective series was almost two years in the making. As the first major North American retrospective of Kapoor's films in nearly 30 years, the project is already generating interest abroad and will likely travel to New York and London after its Toronto run.