With Shashi Kapoor’s death, cinema has lost a true trailblazer who did much more than most of his illustrious peers without making a fuss.
There are two distinct images of Shashi Kapoor that are deeply entrenched in the minds of many people. He was either the ever-toothy charmer on whom mothers, aunts and grandmothers doted or Amitabh Bachchan’s constant on-screen partner, who, for some reason, put on immense weight. The real Shashi Kapoor is, however, nestled in between these two extremes.
Counted amongst the greatest to grace the silver screen, Kapoor was both an immensely successful actor and a star so busy that his own elder brother, the legendary Raj Kapoor, once famously compared him to a taxi for hire, and also a vanguard, whose contribution to cinema is far greater than what he is often credited with.
Shashi Kapoor was 22 when he debuted as a leading man in Hindi films. By the time he faced the camera for the first time, his father, Prithviraj Kapoor had come to be acknowledged as the patriarch of the industry, his elder brothers Raj and Shammi were both superstars, with the former almost venerated for his vision, and the latter considered a rebel who broke all shackles. Born Balbir Raj Kapoor to Prithviraj Kapoor and Ramsarni Devi in Calcutta in 1938, Shashi – his mother called him that as he was as bright as the moon, was the “youngest” in the so-called first family of Indian cinema to don the greasepaint and embrace the arc lights.
Like Raj and Shammi, Shashi, too, started off with participating in the plays put up by his father as part of his travelling repertory, Prithvi Theatre. He later went on to become a popular child artist after portraying the younger versions of the character Raj Kapoor played in Aag (1948) and Awaara (1951), the first instance where three generations of the Kapoors featured in a film together. The film was produced and directed by the leading man, Raj, who also cast his real-life father, Prithviraj, as his reel father and besides Shashi playing his younger self, the film also featured his grandfather, Dewan Bashwanath Kapoor in a cameo. Shashi also played the younger version of Ashok Kumar in Samadhi (1950), and unlike his other siblings, gravitated towards the stage at a very young age, and stuck with it for a quite a while.
The stage was where Shashi discovered the finer nuances of the actor and also the human being within. It was here that he interacted with actors from across India and also other parts of the world, and crafted a style that would be different from all the other Kapoors before or after him. The camaraderie and the bonhomie that theatre inculcated within him towards the craft as well as the fellow actor would go on to become a constant personality trait that would define Kapoor’s career and also off the screen. In the mid-1950s, Shashi met Jennifer Kendal, the daughter of stage doyen Sir Geoffrey Kendal, who, along with her sister Felicity, was touring India with her father’s troupe, Shakespearean. The two found kindred spirits in each other and after a brief courtship, Kapoor and Kendal married in 1958. Till her untimely death from cancer in 1984, Jennifer would remain Shashi’s partner, his best friend and the one without whom perhaps Kapoor might not have become the colossus that he was poised to become.
That Shashi Kapoor became an actor is hardly surprising. He was born into a family of actors, and his marriage to Jennifer further cemented the course of his life, but the manner in which he infused the two varied approaches (the Kapoor and the Kendal way) to the trade was what separated him from most of his ilk. His debut film Char Diwari (1961) was like most of the popular films of the 1960s, a mix of the social and drama, but it was Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra (1961) that made people notice him. Both films also revealed Shashi Kapoor’s penchant for striking on and off-screen collaborations with fellow actors and craftsmen that would become one of his well-known traits. Kapoor’s first heroine, Nanda, a recognisable name, signed a bevy of films with the newcomer even before Char Diwari released, to repose her faith in Kapoor, and Chopra would go on to direct Kapoor in two of his career-best performances – Deewar (1975) and Kabhi Kabhi (1976).
Commercial success was still some distance away, but Kapoor didn’t seem to mind. He had worked with filmmakers that he looked up to, such as Bimal Roy, who directed him in Prem Patra (1962), and the one Kapoor credits for teaching him how to act for the camera and also develop a silent language of his eyes without speaking. Around the same time, he had also featured in the first of his many Merchant-Ivory productions, The Householder (1963), which laid the foundation for a parallel presence in England and the United States. Directed by James Ivory and produced by the late Ismail Merchant, The Householder introduced Kapoor to cinemas outside India, and while the film didn’t do that well – it was mostly dismissed as low-key, though some reviews called the film “charming” – critics and audiences made a note of Kapoor.
Kapoor hit the big time in 1965, when he featured as a part of an ensemble cast in Yash Chopra’s Waqt, that was also probably India’s first bona fide multi-starrer; the Merchant-Ivory production Shakespeare-wallah, which was partially inspired by the real-life events surrounding the Indian sojourn of his father-in-law’s theatre group; and last but not the least, Jab Jab Phool Khile, his first solo-lead blockbuster. In a year that witnessed one of the finest popular Hindi films ever, Vijay Anand’s Guide, Kapoor featured in two of the biggest money-spinners – Waqt and Jab Jab Phool Khile – and saw his Shakespeare-wallah enthrall audiences at the year’s Berlin Film Festival, where it also won Madhur Jaffery, the female lead of the film, the Silver Bear for Best Actress.
For an actor who reportedly lost out the chance to play the protagonist Bhootnath in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), as he was late for his meeting with Guru Dutt, the producer of the film, and director Abrar Alvi, Kapoor managed to come into his own by the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he became not only a familiar face across films but also one of the busiest actors of the era. Kapoor believed that much of what he featured in was “silly”, and he said as much in a 1973 New York Times interview, but at the same time was convinced that this pure escapism was what most audiences craved. He would merrily jump from studio to studio, from character to character in countless films from 7am to 10pm on a daily basis for so many years that his own brother, Raj Kapoor couldn’t get Shashi’s dates for his opus Satyam Shivam Sundaram: Love Sublime (1977). It was here that the showman famously quipped that actors such as his younger brother were like taxis that could be hailed by anyone for money.
Yet, despite being busy with Hindi films, Kapoor never missed an opportunity to feature in English films that gave him a break from being the typical Hindi film hero. As in the mid-1960s, where he became one of the first true crossover Indian actors with The Householder and Shakespeare-wallah, the 1970s saw Kapoor feature in international projects such as Bombay Talkie (1970), where he shared the screen with real-life wife Jennifer, and Conrad Rooks’ Siddhartha (1972), based on the novel by Nobel laureate Herman Hesse. The latter was supposed to feature the then relatively lesser-known Amitabh Bachchan in a small role, but although that didn’t work out, a few years later, Manoj Kumar cast the two together in Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974).
Kapoor could shift gears from being the solo lead and become the strong second lead with Bachchan in films like Deewar, Kabhi Kabhie, Trishul (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979), Shaan (1980) and Do Aur Do Paanch (1978), that continue to be counted amongst some of the most memorable films of the period. This was also the time when the course of Kapoor’s professional life took a major turn, and his decision to become a producer towards the late 1970s changed the way he looked at films, and the way films looked at him.
Once again, like his elder brother Raj, or even Shammi or most of his contemporaries, Kapoor’s decision to become a producer was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, nearly every successful male star of the era had his own production house, and much like acting, Kapoor’s foray into film production was nothing pathbreaking. But what was different was the kind of films he chose to put his money in.
Kapoor’s first production was helmed by Shyam Benegal, the poster boy of India’s “parallel cinema” movement, and beside him in the lead, Junoon (1979) featured Naseeruddin Shah, a most unlikely second lead, considering Shashi’s “commercial” film background. Based on a Ruskin Bond novel, A Flight of Pigeons, Junoon tried to become a meeting point for the art house and typical Bollywood, and succeeded to a great extent, besides winning Kapoor the Best Film award at both the National Film as well as the Filmfare Awards in 1980.
Kapoor had always been a pathetic businessman and never made any profits as a producer even on successful ventures. In the early 1970s, he ventured into film distribution with Bobby (1973), primarily to help Raj Kapoor, who, post-Mera Naam Joker (1970), was professionally at his lowest ebb. The teenybopper romance went on to revive Raj Kapoor’s fortunes, but Shashi never made any money, even after the film was a runaway success. His ill-luck, as far as making money went, continued with his film productions, and despite being some of the finest films in the history of Indian cinema, Kapoor’s productions, right from Kalyug (1980), a modern-day interpretation of the Mahabharata set in the corporate world, where Kapoor portrayed Karan, to 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Aparna Sen’s classic that featured a bravura performance by Jennifer, Vijeta (1982), and Utsav (1984), never made him a single penny.
Kapoor was 40 by the time he truly discovered his voice. The time he became a film producer was also the same when he and Jennifer started Prithvi Theatre in Bombay (now Mumbai) as a tribute to the late Prithviraj Kapoor. Initially, Jennifer helped him run it, but after her death and until the time his health allowed him, Shashi Kapoor would be a regular feature at the venue. Sitting silently in the background, Kapoor’s continued support in preserving the stage in Mumbai is the stuff of legend, and even today, the venue is an inspiration for many.
Although he might have fronted far too many films with escapist nonsense, the ones that he produced were about real people. He never shied away from depicting people who were perhaps out of sync with time, and even those who were being pushed away from the spotlight for one reason or the other. Kapoor was a true modernist and a romantic who was robbed from us by an event that he could never come to terms with. Had it not been for Jennifer’s death, Kapoor could have transformed into a force much bigger and more potent than his father, Prithviraj, and also his bhai sahab, the iconic Raj Kapoor.
Unlike the other Kapoors, Shashi never put on weight that either forced them out of the leading man slot or pushed them to play the uncle or the father to leading men and women who were their own age. A great deal of this was made possible by Jennifer, who ensured that Kapoor took care of himself and she had, in fact, told him to avoid playing Samsthanak in Utsav, for which he had put on weight. When she passed away in the same year as the release of the film, Shashi simply lost direction. In an article that appeared after his death, Ranjan Das Gupta mentioned how Kapoor felt that without Jennifer, life was static for him, and also added how the actor told him that Jennifer was not just an inspiration, but also a mentor during good, medium and bad days, and the greatest influence for him.
It’s a pity that Jennifer wasn’t able to see two of Kapoor’s greatest performances – New Delhi Times (1986) and In Custody (1994) – two films that were perhaps the rare instances where the Shashi Kapoor of yore was visible after Jennifer’s death. New Delhi Times, where Kapoor played an upright newspaper editor who finds himself in the middle of an ugly cesspool of politicians and criminals, got him a National Award (Best Actor), and In Custody, which was directed by his old friend Ismail Merchant, was the last of the big releases that he had.
The last film that Kapoor produced was Ajooba (1991), which was also the only film he ever directed. The abysmal failure of the fantasy film that featured Amitabh Bachchan as a masked superhero, besides his nephew Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, Sonam and Amrish Puri, as well as Shammi Kapoor, ended his run as a filmmaker. Since the early 1990s until the mid-2010s, Kapoor maintained a very low profile that was initially by choice and later, a relief due to deteriorating health. He had been suffering from dementia and failing memory, but some things refused to leave him. Aparna Sen recalled how Kapoor drew a blank when she had bumped into him at an awards function, but the moment she mentioned 36 Chowringhee Lane, his face lit up, and the toothy charmer flashed his legendary smile. In 2015, he became the third member of a family after father Prithviraj and brother Raj to be honoured with the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his contribution to cinema.
With Shashi Kapoor’s death, cinema has lost a true trailblazer who did much more than most of his illustrious peers and without making a fuss about it, something that was both refreshing and liberating, and, in the truest sense of the word, inspiring.