His movies had a devoted following across Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Mao Zedong apparently owned a private print of his 1951 film, Awaara. He was also a key member of a legendary performing dynasty.

And yet many western audiences still aren't familiar with Indian filmmaking legend Raj Kapoor.

A new retrospective of his work, opening mere days after the International Indian Film Awards in Toronto, is hoping to change that.

Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema debuts at TIFF Lightbox on July 1.

li-kapoor-300-tiff-07

Raj Kapoor in a scene from Shree 420, which featured his best-known character, a Charlie Chaplin-inspired hobo. (TIFF)

"Kapoor is absolutely one of the most important filmmakers India has produced," series curator and TIFF Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan told CBC News.

"But his fame is not only in India. It's also throughout what used to be called the second and third worlds" during the 1960s and 1970s, when Hollywood films didn't travel abroad "and Indian films were the only foreign films permitted into Russia, China, much of the Middle East and Africa," he said.

Nicknamed "The Showman," Kapoor was the scion of Indian theatre great Prithviraj Kapoor and gained international renown after the Second World War, first as a young actor, then as a director and producer. He is often credited as a pioneer of the masala film — the mixed-genre cinematic style for which Bollywood became known, drawing his inspiration from sources as disparate as glitzy Hollywood and sombre Russia.

'Raj Kapoor was a social reformer and, primarily, a showman. You get your message with two scoops of sugar'—Noah Cowan

"You grow up [through the films of] Raj Kapoor in the way that India grew up: from being a kind of rough and ready young democracy into a kind of a prosperous land on its own terms… but one that's plagued by corruption and is still overwhelmed by the poverty of the majority of its citizens," Cowan said.

Working during Indian film's Golden Age, Kapoor tackled social concerns and made films that captured the buoyant, optimistic spirit of the post-Independence era. Still, the audience and the box office always remained important to him.

The LIghtbox retrospective will include 20 films, mostly by Kapoor but also by collaborators and contemporaries. The titles include:

  • Barsaat
  • Sangam
  • Mother India
  • Awaara
  • Aag
  • Mughal-E-Azam
  • Shree 420
  • Pyaasa
  • Meera Nam Joker
  • Ram Teri Ganga Mailli
  • Bobby

"Raj Kapoor was a social reformer and, primarily, a showman. You get your message with two scoops of sugar," Cowan said.

Kapoor died in 1988, but the family dynasty extended to his brothers Shashi and Shammi — both celebrated actors — and continues through the Kapoor children (with Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv all finding success in film) and grandchildren (Randbir, Kareena and Karishma are among India's biggest stars today).

The filmmaker's heirs aided TIFF in striking new prints of many of the key films screening in the retrospective — the first such examination of Kapoor in North America in nearly three decades — and provided high-quality digital copies of the rest.

The family also pulled archival props and memorabilia from the RK Studios vault for display in Toronto. They'll be presented alongside paintings inspired by Kapoor films and a specially commissioned installation by artist and filmmaker Srinivas Krishna.

si-cowan-tiff-gpm_2803

TIFF Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan. (George Pimentel/TIFF)

The TIFF run begins with Kapoor family members kicking things off on June 26 and continues through August 7. The retrospective has also garnered international buzz and is now slated to travel to New York's Museum of Modern Art and to the British Film Institute in London.

In the West, "retrospectives of commercial Indian cinema [are] a pretty rare occurrence. There hasn't been a lot of archival work done, the film prints tend to be in pretty bad shape, they're on TV all the time and, frankly, they're very different films than what people are used to seeing on multiplex screens. As a result, these opportunities don't come around too often," Cowan said.

"If anyone has even half an interest in Indian cinema or Bollywood, these are the keys that unlock that door."