A while ago, I don’t remember exactly when, I had a chance to catch a glimpse of Shashi Kapoor on a wheelchair at Juhu’s Prithvi theatre; frail, almost brittle, lost and forlorn yet calm and smiling in the crowd. After a brief bout of intense excitement at the star-spotting, I eventually decided not to go up to greet him. Perhaps to let him stay forever in the mind’s eye as the youthful, lively, disarmingly charming, ever smiling idol he had always been for many of his admirers.
For a lot of kids growing up on a steady diet of Hindi cinema first love usually happens at the movies. For me it was on Doordarshan in the late 1970s thanks to a black and white Telerad TV at my aunt’s place in Delhi’s Kidwai Nagar. It was on it that I first saw Kapoor, stylishly singing “Khilte hain gul yahan” to Rakhee in Sharmilee (1971). I was totally besotted by that winsome grin and the crooked “Dracula” teeth.
Over the years, as one’s understanding of cinema grew so did one’s recognition of Kapoor’s contribution to it. It would indeed be reductive to box Kapoor as just a classy good looker, which he anyhow was. Beyond the spit and polish and the sophisticated veneer also lurked a compelling actor—be it the obsessive Pathan lover of the young British girl Ruth in Junoon (1978) or the fascinating interpretation of Mahabharata’s Karn as the orphan Karan in Kalyug (1980). He bought alive the dilemmas of a man in troubled marriage even as the son is trying to find himself in Vijeta (1982) and was effortlessly persuasive as the upright journalist in the thick systemic failures and political corruption in New Delhi Times (1984), the film that deservedly got him a National Award. And then, of course, there was the famous “Mere paas maa hai” line in Deewar (1975), which only Kapoor could have delivered the way he did.
Kapoor was one of the earliest actors who boldly ventured internationally when no one else was attempting to. He was also amongst the first Bollywood personalities to support independent theatre and cinema which were so reliant on state patronage in those times—by establishing Prithvi Theatre and his production house Film Valas. Coming a full circle indeed from starting off as a child artiste in films like Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951), where he played the younger version of his own older brother Raj Kapoor.
Debut film and Bollywood innings
Kapoor made his debut as a leading man in 1961 in Yash Chopra Dharamputra, a film that remains relevant till date with its portrayal of the Partition and concomitant issue of communalism and religious bigotry. It was all about a Hindu family bringing up an illegitimate Muslim child. Kapoor went on to do over a hundred films. His innings in Bollywood—spanning from the 60s till the 80s—coincided with the age of multi-starrers and he did almost as many of them as he did the solo hero films. The pioneering of them all was Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1964)—in which he played the youngest son of a family torn asunder by an earthquake. In the 70s he was practically in every other film of the day, the reason why Raj Kapoor once called him a “taxi”, for operating non-stop.
Most of Kapoor’s early popular films were light-hearted romances held by the strength of his charismatic presence. Watching him in Pyaar Kiye Jaa (1966) I had often wondered why he and Mumtaz were not the lead considering that they would have looked so attractive together. Instead, Kapoor was made to romance Rajashree in the film, while Mumtaz was cast opposite comedian Mehmood. Much later they came together in Chor Machaye Shor (1974), fittingly one of the biggest hits of the year.
Shashi Kapoor’s jodis
Those were the years when the hero-heroine jodis (pairings) mattered a big deal and Kapoor formed several handsome ones with the heroines of the day. With Sadhana in Bimal Roy’s Prem Patra (1962) for instance. Or with Tanuja in the Roy production Benazir (1964). Or with his own sister-in-law Felicity Kendall inShakespeare Wallah (1965). My favourite remains The Householder (1963) with Leela Naidu. There hasn’t been a more achingly enchanting, young, couple on screen, trying hard to make a success of their brand new marriage.
Most heroines of the day found Kapoor endearing and he worked with them in not one but a clutch of films. One of his favourites was Nanda, Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) being one of their most popular outing together where he is the innocent houseboat owner who loses his heart to the city woman. There were Basera, Doosra Aadmi, Kabhi Kabhie, Sharmilee with Rakhee; Waqt, Aa Gale Lag Ja, New Delhi Times with Sharmila Tagore; Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Satyam Shivam Sundaram with Zeenat Aman; Abhinetri and Trishul with Hema Malini; Pyaar Ka Mausam with Asha Parekh; Chor Machaye Shor, Prem Kahani with Mumtaz.
Somewhere as we grew up and the audience turned a corner Amitabh Bachchan’s angst began to take the shine off Kapoor’s charm. Nonetheless he made the most popular pairing (after Nanda) with Bachchan and the two co-starred in 12 films: Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974), Deewaar (1975), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Trishul (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979), Suhaag (1979), Do Aur Do Paanch (1980), Shaan (1980), Namak Halaal (1982), Immaan Dharam (1977), Silsila (1981) and Akayla (1991).In most of these the easy presence of Kapoor was a perfect foil to Bachchan’s smouldering intensity and they were a riot together in a comedy like Do Aur Do Paanch.
Of the three brothers Kapoor was the most rooted in theatre travelling with his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres. He worked as both assistant stage manager as well as actor. It was theatre that got him together with his wife, English actress Jennifer Kendal who herself was part of her father’s roving troupe—Shakespeareana. She remained a strong and abiding influence in his life and her passing away in 1984 left him broken and distraught. That’s when the decline is supposed to have set in. The two first met in Kolkata while working in their respective theatre groups and married against stiff opposition with the support of Kapoor’s sister-in-law Geeta Bali. It was with Kendal that Kapoor established Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai in 1978.
They acted in a number of films together, most notably in the Merchant Ivory productions. Kapoor was one of the earliest to act in international, English language films, which include The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1982) in which he co-starred with his wife, Siddhartha (1972), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and The Deceivers (1988). His last significant role would be in Muhafiz (In Custody) in 1994 where he played the custodian of tradition and of Urdu.
The influence of Jennifer Kendal is often said to be the reason why Kapoor and his kids remained at a tangent from the larger Kapoor clan. Unconventional, not quite courting the mainstream the way others have, despite starting off with Hindi films. His eldest son Kunal has his own production house Adfilm-Valas and runs Prithvi Theatre; his second son Karan, who after a modelling stint is now a successful photographer while his daughter Sanjana who managed Prithvi Theatre for years now runs cultural organisation, Junoon.
Another Jennifer Kendal influence was his support for artistic cinema. The same year that he set up Prithvi Theatre, Kapoor set up his own production house, Film Valas, which produced critically acclaimed films such as Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Vijeta (1982) and Utsav (1984).
Early on in his career Kapoor worked as an assistant director. But it was much later, in 1991 that he directed his first Hindi film, a fantasy titled Ajooba which had his co-star Bachchan and nephew Rishi Kapoor in the lead. Kapoor was awarded Padma Bhushan in 2011 and the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 2015.
Growing up is all about losing pieces of your childhood, day by day, bit by bit. And nothing defines lost childhood more than the lost first love. Even if it was at the movies, on the silver screen. Today, several like me would have grown up, quite unwittingly because of Shashi Kapoor’s passing away.
Remembering the maverick actor, Amitabh confessed having copied Kapoor’s hairstyle. “The next .. was his semi curly hair on head, falling carelessly over his forehead and ears, not quite covering it .. and my upper story mumbled again : ‘hey ! maybe you should think of covering your ears as well ..’ … and off I went to Hakim the hair dresser at Taj Hotel with my plan .. and executed, it remained till date,” he wrote on his blog.
“’Shashi Kapoor !’ was what one heard as he extended a warm soft hand out to you in introduction ; that devastating smile complimenting the twinkle in his eyes. He needn’t have done so. Every one knew him. But this was his infectious humble self. When he spoke, there was a mischievous, gentle, almost inaudible, delicate, yodel, in his voice - most endearing and comforting to the one he was introduced to. The self introduction habit, was a gem,” Big B wrote.
# By Namrata Joshi, Source: The Hindu