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Shashi Kapoor : An actor and a gentleman

Shashi Kapoor : An actor and a gentleman
His chiselled, impossibly handsome features made him a natural born matinee idol and he straddled commercial Hindi cinema of his day, producing a long succession of hits. 

But Shashi Kapoor was not just a big-ticket movie star with drop-dead gorgeous looks. He was an interpreter of emotions, a master of nuanced performances, one who could segue from song-and-dance routines to understated art-house outings without missing a beat.

 Ever rooted to his early training in theatre, Kapoor sought meaningful cinema again and again – even as he aced commercial Hindi movies with his usual grace and flair.

Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star tells the story of an actor who is often overlooked in a frame crowded with the likes of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and so on. Written by New York-based film journalist Aseem Chhabra, the biography is a comprehensive narration of his life and career.

 What makes it stand out, however, is that it is peppered with interesting anecdotes about the actor culled from interviews with Kapoor’s friends, family and associates such as Sharmila Tagore, Shyam Benegal, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh Kapoor, Simi Garewal, children Kunal and Sanjana Kapoor and several others. 

They bring to life a man, who is now battling old age and dementia, but was once a staggeringly popular actor with an astonishingly generous soul.  
Born on March 18, 1938, Shashi Kapoor, youngest son of Prithviraj Kapoor and brother of Raj and Shammi Kapoor, was 15 when he began apprenticing at his father’s Prithvi Theatres. 

It was here too that he met the person with whom he was to have the defining relationship of his life – Jennifer Kendal, who at the time was an actress with her father Geoffrey Kendal’s travelling theatre company, Shakespeareana. The young lovers married in 1958, and Shashi Kapoor soon threw himself into the task of making a career in films. Though he loved the theatre, he turned to the more lucrative arena of films to provide for his growing family.

His early movies –  Char Diwari (1961), Dharmaputra (1961), and Prem Patra (1962) – tanked at the box office. Finally, his 1965 film Jab Jab Phool Khile hit gold and set Shashi Kapoor soaring to the sunlit uplands of celebrity. 

A string of commercial successes followed, including films such as Waqt (1965), Aamne Saamne (1967), Haseena Maan Jayegi (1968), Suhana Safar (1970), Sharmeelee (1971), Deewar (1975), Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974) Trishul (1978), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) and many more. Shashi Kapoor, who had once baulked at singing songs in the Yash Chopra film, Dharmaputra, was now a fully fledged Hindi movie hero. 

Along with Amitabh Bachchan, who was a great buddy and with whom he did 14 films, Kapoor was a “Bollywood” biggie long before Hindi film industry had acquired that ghastly moniker. 

Indeed, his work calendar was so chock-a-block during the 1970s that older brother Raj Kapoor used to sniff that he had become like a taxi – “kisi ko bhi apni gaadi mein bitha leta hai,” he used to say, remembers Neetu Singh Kapoor.

But even as threw his heart and soul into the rigours of commercial Hindi films, even as he romanced a bevy of heroines, starred in harebrained comedies and over-the-top melodramas and uttered such much-admired, much-spoofed lines as Mere paas Ma hai (Deewar), Kapoor the artiste was quietly making a name for himself in the art house films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

 Long before the likes of Om Puri or Irrfan Pathan became crossover stars, his fine portrayals in Merchant-Ivory productions like Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) Heat and Dust (1983) and others won him international accolades. And perhaps they satisfied some of the thirst for good cinema that always burned inside him.

Kapoor’s foray into production too was caught up with his desire to make good films. When Aparna Sen was struggling to find a producer for her debut directorial venture 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), it was Kapoor who took it on.

 However, though the film, where his wife Jennifer plays the lead role of a lonely old Anglo-Indian school teacher, won a plethora of national and international awards, it made no money at all. Earlier, Junoon (1978) a fine film directed by Shyam Benegal, and set against the backdrop of the Revolt of 1857, too had garnered much critical acclaim, but couldn’t get the cash registers to jingle. Kapoor’s other productions, including Kalyug (1981), Utsav (1984) and Ajooba (1991), were also box office duds.

Chhabra dwells at length on the subject of Shashi Kapoor the producer, one who was always felled by his immense generosity and his inability to read the riot act to directors and make them stick to a budget. But the generosity of spirit that undid him as a producer was also the quality that people loved him for.
 His friends and associates talk about his remarkable humanism. He was unfailingly courteous to everyone on the sets, including those lower down in the movie-making pecking order. He threw parties that often included the entire team working on a film and as a producer, he lavished all manner of luxuries on his actors. 

Tellingly, a Bombay journalist who stayed in the same apartment building as Kapoor, remembers, how, after the riots of 1993 the building society wanted to throw her Muslim family out. The actor was only one who protested the decision and stormed out of the meeting.

In his later years – which are also studded with memorable performances in films like New Delhi Times (1986), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), In Custody (1993) and so on – Shashi Kapoor was slipping down a rabbit hole of personal grief. After he lost his wife Jennifer to cancer in 1984, Kapoor seemed to steadily lose his moorings. 

Still, overweight and worn-out as he was, he could summon up a compelling portrayal of a has-been movie star in the American production Side Streets (1998), his penultimate film.

Shashi Kapoor’s place in the annals of Hindi film industry is indisputable – and Chhabra’s book does much to underscore that fact. However, as a biography it seems a bit one-dimensional at times. If there were shadows and grey areas in his emotional life, these are left unexplored. Was Shashi Kapoor really a movie star devoid of any complexities? There are some infelicitous editing slip-ups too, including an overuse of the adjective “legendary”, which may be a journalistic stock-in-trade, but tends to jar when encountered too often between the covers of a book. 

On the whole, however, Chhabra’s attempt to throw light on one of the most charming and loveable Indian movie stars of all time is commendable. The “Kapoor” name has a magical ring in Hindi film industry. And this is one Kapoor who is among the tallest and the most magical of them all.    
Shuma Raha

Shuma Raha

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