Honour At Last For Shashi Kapoor

by Biswadeep Ghosh - Apr 28, 2016 02:30 PM +05:30 IST
Honour At Last For Shashi Kapoor

The Dadasaheb Phalke Award is a richly-deserved honour for Shashi Kapoor who has worked in—and financed—many more out-of-the-box films than any of his mainstream contemporaries.

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, better known as Dadasaheb Phalke, is referred to as the Father of Indian cinema. But his name makes a return to public consciousness only when the Dadasaheb Phalke Award is given for an individual’s ‘outstanding contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema.’

Had he been among us, Phalke would have been a happy man today. This, because the Dadasaheb Phalke Award has done for its recipient Shashi Kapoor what Paresh Mokashi’s film Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) did for the pioneer of cinema in India. If the film reminded us of Phalke’s passion, dedication and struggles, the award has been given to a deserving person whose contribution to Indian cinema is underestimated by the common man.

Kapoor’s solo-hero starrers are rarely shown on television. What most people are exposed to are two-hero films from the 1970s and 1980s, with Amitabh Bachchan the superstar and Kapoor playing tag. What most of us remember from his mainstream Hindi film career is that classic snatch-away line in Deewaar in the famous mere paas ma hai scene.

Today, it can be argued that the label of being ‘the second male lead in a Bachchan film’ has virtually eradicated his presence as a subject with an identity of its own. Or, it had, since the Dadasaheb Phalke Award will renew our interest in his work that makes him stand out in a crowd. That crowd includes Bachchan.

Indeed, he is one of a kind in Indian cinema—an intellectual with an international outlook who often put his money where his mouth is.

After debuting as a child artist in the early 40s, Kapoor played the younger Raj Kapoor in Aag and Awara before starting out as the male lead in Dharmputra (1961). Directed by Yash Chopra, the film bombed because it showed scenes of Partition riots and dealt with the issue of communalism in an in-the-face manner which the audiences of the period wasn’t mature enough to handle. Kapoor played a fundamentalist, an unusual—and risky—choice for a handsome young man like him.

Jab Jab Phool Khile possibly highlighted Kapoor’s charm the best. Using the much-flogged poor-boy-meets-rich-girl formula, it was the story of a Kashmiri boatman (Kapoor) who falls in love with an affluent heiress played by Nanda. Needless to say, the heiress falls in love with him too. The film’s music scored by Kalyanji-Anandji was a blockbuster in its own right. The most hummable song in the soundtrack, Na Na Karke Pyaar Tumhi Se sung by Lata Mangeshkar remains popular even today.

Kapoor was part of Chopra’s Waqt, the first multi-starrer in Hindi cinema. He acted in films like Suhana Safar and Chor Machaye Shor, the latter, a super hit in a middle-class-boy-meets-rich-girl scenario in which his stardom shone on the big screen. He acted in a typical comedy like Chori Mera Kaam, and Fakira, which achieved reasonable success at a time when Bachchan’s firepower was threatening to engulf everybody. Aa Gale Lag Jaa, a Manmohan Desai-directed romance, was another hit which brings to mind Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle Ka Naata Koi, a haunting composition of R D Burman.

Had Kapoor not ventured beyond acting in standard Hindi far he would have just been one of the period-specific heroes who did well while they lasted. What makes him special is that extra dimension in his profile, which is the outcome of his quality work both within and outside Mumbai.

He produced and acted in Kalyug, an ambitious Shyam Benegal film which was a modern re-imagining of the Mahabharata. He also wore the two hats of producer and actor in Junoon set during the 1857 Uprising, which won the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Hindi. His performance of the character of an honest journalist in New Delhi Times won him the National Award for Best Actor. These were moments when he broke away from the stereotype, seeking new cinematic pastures for artistic satisfaction.

He produced 36 Chowringhee Lane, a film of poignant lyrical beauty directed by Aparna Sen. This film will be best remembered for the performance of his wife, the late Jennifer Kendal, who played a lonely Anglo-Indian teacher, whose mundane existence promises to change after her student enters her life along with her boyfriend.

His association with Merchant-Ivory led to Shakespeare Wallah, a story about a travelling theatre troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare’s plays in Indian towns. Kapoor performed in several Merchant-Ivory films, including The Householder, Side Streets, The Deceivers, Muhafiz (In Custody) and Heat and Dust, in which he delivered a standout performance as a nawab who has an affair with the wife of a racist British official.

It was in such small-budget off-beat productions that Kapoor found roles that challenged him and work he revelled in. In Siddhartha, based on the classic by German writer Hermann Hesse and directed by Conrad Rooks, he was a rich young man in ancient India who experiences several phases in his life during his voyage of self-discovery. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the story of a footloose married couple, featured him in the role of the boy’s father who enters their lives. Kapoor, now a wheelchair-bound septuagenarian, has a richer and more diverse portfolio than most of his contmporaries.

Indeed, he is one of a kind. He has acted in mainstream Hindi films as a child artist as well as the male lead. He has surrendered the spotlight to Bachchan in their two-hero films. He has been seen in arthouse Hindi films. He has acted in British and American films. He has produced and acted in films, among them Junoon and Kalyug. He has stayed away from being in front of the camera and given a mini classic in 36 Chowinghee Lane as a producer.

In 1987, New York Magazine had described him as ‘India’s Paul Newman.’ The late Ismail Merchant, while talking about his experience of working with actors, had left his chair and started circling the table in front of him. Deep breaths alternated with several adjectives before he finally concluded with, “Oh, Shashi, Shashi, he is one of the best I’ve worked with.” Mind you, just a couple of minutes earlier, Merchant had unleashed a few Anthonys and brilliants, while talking about Sir Anthony Hopkins. This writer should know. Merchant had been talking to him.

Because of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Shashi Kapoor, a long-distance runner on various tracks, is back in our minds. We must make sure that, after the present euphoria subsides, he doesn’t retreat to the sidelines once again.

Having started out as a journalist at 18, Biswadeep Ghosh let go of a promising future as a singer not much later. He hardly steps out of his rented Pune flat where he alternates between writing or pursuing his other interests and and looks after his pet sons Burp and Jack.
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