Here was a man who truly had everything: a handsome visage, blue-blooded heritage in theatre and films, and more charm than any one man should be allowed to possess. His initiation into acting began at a very young age, when he toured the country with his father Prithviraj Kapoor, and the famous Prithvi theatres.
Shashi Kapoor entered films as a lead hero with Dharmputra; it flopped. Roles in Char Diwari and Prem Patra followed; box-office success didn’t. Soon, he was known as the jinxed Kapoor. It was actress Nanda who rescued him, signing a whole bunch of films opposite the newcomer. (Shashi vindicated her belief in his star power – apart from their first film (Char Diwari) together, every single one of their six releases were super hits.)
Success was his, even if it had taken its own sweet time. For the next quarter of a century, he would hold sway over a generation of cine-goers as hero, both solo and in multi-starrers, and later, as his star began to dim, as characters. However, more than anything else, it is his punctuality, his genuine bonhomie, his equal treatment of cast and crew (as producer), his open-handed generosity and his undying charm that make him the gentleman that he is.
My personal story? It was in the nineties, and I was a trainee journalist who had just been given a big assignment – meet with Sanjana Kapoor, who was then running Prithvi Theatres. I called, made an appointment, and arrived well before scheduled time, and unusually for her, Sanjana was running late. As I waited at Prithvi Cafe, I watched a very familiar face walk towards me. He wanted to know who I was waiting for. I replied that I had come to interview Sanjana. Shashi, for it was he, sent someone to find out what was keeping Sanjana. Then, he turned to me, flashed his crooked smile, and said, “The pretty girls now come to interview Sanjana, not me.” I’m sure I blushed like an idiot; I was definitely speechless, and he smiled once more, and turned away, luckily before he could see my knees buckling.
Born on March 18th 1938, Balbir Raj Kapoor, the youngest of Prithviraj Kapoor’s four children, young Shashi made his screen debut as a child actor in a clutch of mythologicals, but his best remembered roles as child actor are in his older brother’s Aag(1948) and Awara (1951). He continued acting on stage, and by 1956, he was both actor and assistant stage manager for Prithvi, his father’s theatre group.
That year, as usual, Shashi travelled with Prithvi to Calcutta, where the company was booked for shows. A travelling theatre group from UK, Shakespeareana, headed by noted British actor Geoffrey Kendall and his wife Laura Liddell, were also booked to play at the same venue. While backstage, Shashi’s eyes fell on the actress who was playing Miranda in The Tempest. She was Jennifer Kendall, Geoffrey’s daughter. The young lad was smitten, and soon, so was she.
It was a strange courtship because Shashi was exceedingly shy, not having had much to do with any women other than those who belonged to his own family. He was also not very conversant in English. Shashi once confessed that if it weren’t for his elder brother Shammi who took him to task for stringing the girl along, he would still have been courting Jennifer. Eventually, it was to Shammi, and his wife Geeta, that Shashi would first take his Jennifer. And ironically, Shammi, who had eloped with Geeta because he was scared of what his parents would say (they took the help of Raj Kapoor and his wife, Krishna), along with Geeta, would tell his parents about Shashi and Jennifer.
Prithviraj and his wife Rama weren’t too overjoyed with the idea of a British bahu, but they gave in, provided the youngsters could prove this wasn’t just an infatuation. Geoffrey Kendall, on the other hand, was not happy at all. He asked them to wait a couple of years, years where Shashi joined Shakespeareana just so he could be with Jennifer. In 1958, he asked for Jennifer’s hand in marriage again, and was once again refused. This time, however, Jennifer had something to say for herself, and the two were married, thanks to monetary help from Raj Kapoor, whom Shashi considers both his idol and a second father.
(Raj himself, according to Shashi, treated him as his eldest son.) A couple of years later, son Kunal was born, and needing to support his family, Shashi looked towards films where his elder brothers had already made a name for themselves.
Here are some of my favourite Shashi Kapoor films:
1. Dharmputra(1961) Yash Chopra
Yash Chopra’s second directorial venture after Dhool ka Phool (both under his brother BR Chopra’s B.R.Films banner), saw Shashi Kapoor play Dilip Rai, the Muslim-born adopted son of a Hindu family. Set in pre-partition India, Shashi was cast against type (for a debut). Against the backdrop of political turmoil, his Dilip turns to religion as his identity, becoming more and more bigoted and fanatic as time goes by. It was a class act in a classic film, the sort that you wish Yash Chopra had continued to make.
2. The Householder(1963) James Ivory
Shashi was one of India’s first actors to go international, with Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder co-starring Leela Naidu. It was an association that would last through the years. The Householder’s Prem Sagar is an underpaid, put-upon school teacher, who finds that his newly wed bride is untidy, cannot cook, and has no social skills. Impulsively, he writes to his mother, and her arrival throws the young couple who still barely know each other into further turmoil. His wife leaves him, and young Prem is soon asking everyone he knows for advice. A simple tale that discusses the nuances of marital life, The Householder showed early on that Shashi was not just another pretty face.
The insecurity that he went through in his lean days, made Shashi sign all the films that came his way. The quality of most of these films left much to be desired, and he was extremely busy. So busy in fact, that when Raj Kapoor wanted to sign him for Satyam Shivam Sundaram, he had no dates to spare. In exasperation, Raj threw up his hands and named him ‘Taxi Kapoor’ on account of his multiple shifts. (RK claimed that Shashi, who was shooting for seven films simultaneously during the period, was signing new films at traffic signals.)
However, most of the money he earned doing those inane roles was ploughed back into the industry, as he began producing the sort of films that he wanted to make. He partnered with the likes of Shyam Benegal (Junoon), Girish Karnad (Utsav), Govid Nihalani (Vijeta) and Aparna Sen (36 Chowringhee Lane).
3. Kalyug(1981) Shyam Benegal
Shyam Benegal took the main characters and critical events from the Mahabharata, and set his story in corporate India. Shashi Kapoor played Karan (no prizes for guessing which epic character that is), bound by loyalty to the ‘wrong’ side. His controlled and restrained performance was one of the highlights of the film, which many critics have called Benegal’s most complex film yet. He was superb as he navigates both his unexplained parentage, and his role in the present day rivalry as he is pit with his cousins against his own brothers.
One of the few films that showed the Indian Air Force in a realistic light, Vijeta was, on the face of it, a coming of age story of a young lad Angad (Kunal Kapoor), as he wrestles with his parents’ troubled marriage. But the underlying theme is vastly different. Angad resents his father Nihal (Shashi Kapoor) for his infidelity, and Nihal himself is aware that his rationalisations fall short. Nihal is not very likeable – he is pompous, arrogant, weak-willed, very much the patriarch, and not above using large doses of guilt to get his own way. (The contrast with Verghese (Amrish Puri in another cast-against-type role) is very marked.) Shashi’s Nihal is flawed, weak, and a domestic tyrant, and he imbues it with just the right amount of self-pity.
5. New Delhi Times(1986) Romesh Sharma
Newspaper editor Vikas Pande uncovers more than he had bargained for in this hard-hitting political drama about the politician-underworld-media nexus. Shashi Kapoor won a well-deserved National Award for Best Actor playing an embattled editor whose principles clash with internal and external pressures. Written by Gulzar, the film won three National Awards, but was shunned by distributors due to its controversial content.
6. Kabhi Kabhie(1976) Yash Chopra
He was only one of the three male stars in this colourful melodrama, yet he stood out as the fond father, and mature, understanding husband. Yes, he was annoyingly cheerful in the film, but hey, being Shashi, one sight of that crooked smile and everything is forgiven. Besides, how can one not forgive a man, who upon realising that his wife has a past, is man enough to overcome his initial dismay and realise that that is exactly what it is – a past? When Pooja (Raakhee) breaks down and insists that he must be God, he says: Is duniya mein aadmi insaan ban jaaye, toh bahut badi baat hai.
7. Do Aur Do Paanch (1980) Rakesh Kumar
This was one of the many films that Shashi did with Amitabh Bachchan. There was a time, in fact, when he was referred to as ‘Amitabh’s favourite heroine’ because they acted in so many films together. While this movie is not as well-known as their pairing inTrishul, Kaala Patthar, Shaan, Suhaag, Deewar, et al, it is one where the Bachchan-Kapoor chemistry is at its best. As con men who are deadly enemies out to outwit each other at every step, Shashi and Amit sparkled in this film with their split-second comic timing and excellent repartee. From the animated credits on, the film was an out-and-out entertainer, full of emotion, drama, fights, the works, but what stood out was the comedy provided by its lead stars. As Laxman / Sunil, Shashi was the perfect foil to Amitabh’s Ram / Vijay.
Few know that Amitabh, in his struggling days, had a one-line scene in Ismail-Merchant’s Bombay Talkies. When Shashi spotted him, he asked Amitabh not to waste time doing inconsequential roles; he was made for better things. Amitabh has gone on record about Shashi’s support and encouragement in the early part of his career.
8. Sharmilee(1971) Samir Ganguly
One of Shashi’s finest roles in the commercial milieu, Sharmilee had him play an idealistic army captain who falls in love with one sister, and ends up getting engaged to her identical twin. His Captain Ajit was at once dedicated, and a sensitive and passionate lover whose interactions with the two sisters make this film a compelling watch. Again, he is not super hero, but intensely human, and that is part of his charm. (Why do I prefer flawed characters instead of ‘perfect’ men is a subject for another post.) While Khilte hain gul yahaan shows him at his most romantic, O meri, O meri Sharmilee is Shashi at his zany best, as he tries to woo the girl who, to his intense surprise, is shyer now than when he first met her.
9. Pyar Kiye Jaa (1966) C.V.Sridhar
In this absolutely hilarious film (a remake of the Tamil flickKadhalikka Neramillai), Shashi joined Kishore Kumar and Mehmood in a laugh-fest that was never allowed to get out of hand. Shashi plays Ashok, a young man employed by Seth Ramlal (Om Prakash). When he’s thrown out, he refuses to leave, pitching a tent in front of Ramlal’s house in protest.
An absolute farce, where no one, least of all the main actors seemed to take themselves seriously, Pyar Kiye Jaa showcased Shashi’s ability to do comedy with a straight face.
10. Junoon (1979) Shyam Benegal
Based on Ruskin Bond’s Flight of the Pigeons, the film is set against the backdrop of the First War of Indian Independence in 1857. Shashi is Javed Khan, a Pathan, who falls in love with a young British girl, Ruth (Nafisa Ali). His wife, Firdaus (Shabana Azmi) can only watch from the sidelines. When the church is burnt, Javed brings Ruth and her mother home; his obsession (junoon) with her keeps her safe, because his nobility will not allow him to take her without permission. As his frustration increases, Ruth’s mother (Jennifer Kendall) tells him: Let Dilli decide. If Dilli remains in your hands, then Ruth will also be yours. (Toh phir karne do Dilli ko faisla. Agar Dilli aapki, toh Ruth bhi aapki.)
This was Shashi’s production house, Film Valas, first venture. Shashi Kapoor was known as a family man, and after Jennifer’s death (the only woman he ever loved, according to him) in 1984, he let himself go. There was no one to keep him in order, and indeed, no one to live for. Today, he lives the life of a recluse, and after brother Shammi’s death, has withdrawn more into himself. Yet, the dimpled smile still flashes occasionally, reminding us of the charmer he still is.
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Written By:- Anuradha Warrier, is a writer, editor, film and music buff. She writes for pleasure, edits for a living, and indulges in watching films, listening to music, and writing about both on her blog Conversations Over Chai as and when time permits.
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