A life in the shadows

In life as in death, tragedy stalked the actor Geeta Kapoor.

Published : Jun 20, 2018 12:30 IST

Geeta Kapoor.

Geeta Kapoor.

AS the credits of Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah roll, they read: “Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari and Raaj Kumar... supported by Heena Kausar, Naseem, Shabana, Reshma, Bilquis... Geeta Kapoor and Uma Dhawan.”

It is the penultimate name on that list that has occupied cinegoers’ attention in recent times, probably much more than when the film was released in 1972. Then it was all about the heroine, Meena Kumari, and all the tales associated with her last show; how the likes of Dharmendra, Madhubala and others at various times had suggested to her that she complete the film despite her failing health and differences with her husband-director Kamal Amrohi.

Geeta Kapoor’s name appears fleetingly towards the end of the acting credits, the kind of mention which the actor herself notes, smiles, and shares with her friend sitting next to her in the auditorium. Many go on to better parts in the industry, which is replete with stories of actors who began with walk-on roles and went on to become big stars. Not so for character artiste Geeta Kapoor. She started and ended her career in the shadows of big stars. She acted in around a hundred films, but after her death, it was only her role as Raaj Kumar’s wife in Pakeezah that people recall. Worse, Geeta Kapoor herself could not remember the name of any movie she did except Pakeezah . This was because of the Parkinson’s disease she was suffering from long before she lost the battle in the summer of 2018.

For the record, though, she did act in Amrohi’s next film, Razia Sultan , starring Hema Malini and Dharmendra, and later worked in D. Rajendra Babu’s Pyar Karke Dekho , with Govinda and Mandakini, in the late 1980s.

She was probably one of those anonymous actors on whom the camera focusses for a few seconds before zooming in on the visage of the lead actors; the kind of side-actor who waits for six hours for the lofty co-star to arrive on the sets, then often gets told to talk with the back to the camera, for the cameraperson would like to linger over the emotions expressed by the more popular lead actor. Probably, no role was ever written for her and no hero recommended her name for a pivotal role in the patriarchal film industry. All that must have hurt, considering she was more than passably beautiful. As for the little crumbs that came her way, she threatened to make a neat cake out of them. It was not to be. To add to the agony of a career failing to take off was the consequent financial crisis. Small roles meant small pay cheques. Add to that a distraught personal life and serious health issues. In short, Geeta Kapoor’s life was probably more tragic than the life of Meena Kumari, the tragedy queen she had the honour of working with in Pakeezah .

Yet, for all the troubles she went through, Geeta Kapoor could have led a peaceful and quiet autumn but for her son, Raja, a small-time choreographer in the Hindi film industry, who is said to have maltreated her to such an extent that she was almost always famished. One day in late 2016, he reportedly took her to SRV Hospital in Goregaon in Mumbai for treatment and left her there on the pretext of withdrawing cash from an ATM nearby. She kept waiting for him. He never turned up. The hospital bills mounted. The son did not show up. From dawn to dusk, and from dusk somehow to dawn, she waited for him, mouthing barely comprehensible words in anticipation of his arrival. The hospital staff displayed kindness and patience in equal measure. But bills had to be paid.

That is when Ashoke Pandit, former member of the Central Board of Film Certification, stepped in. He may not have had great success as a film-maker himself, but Pandit displayed a strong humanitarian streak. He paid her bills, along with producer Ramesh Taurani.

Geeta Kapoor’s problems, though, did not end there. All the bigwigs of Pakeezah had crossed over to the other world—Kamal Amrohi, Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari, Naushad, Raaj Kumar, etc. Nobody was there to give her shelter. She could not count on her son either, and she did not recall her residential address. She could not count on the other film-makers she worked with. So Pandit did the best possible thing by getting her admitted in Jeevan Asha Old Age Home, run by the Society of Helpers of Mary in Andheri East in Mumbai.

Geeta Kapoor spent a year or so there. Pandit continued visiting her there. Often, they would have tea or breakfast together. Gradually, Geeta Kapoor warmed up to him. On all such visits, she would plead with him to call her son over. Every time, she would live in the hope that he would come and take her home. In her disturbed state, she had forgotten her daughter, who too did not come forward to take her home after the initial reports of her hospitalisation surfaced more than a year ago. Right until the end, Geeta Kapoor longed to be with her son; the son who, she revealed, used to abuse her, beat her and keep her starved of food. Media reports following her death claimed that she got to eat once in three-four days at home. With the son never showing up, the allegations went unverified.

Soon after, Taurani and Pandit arranged for a little feast to cheer her up, Geeta Kapoor, aged 67, breathed her last at Cooper Hospital in Vile Parle. Her doctors decided to wait for two days for her son or a blood relation to show up to perform the last rites. The media did its bit by publishing news of her demise. But the son never turned up. Instead, a little later, her daughter, reportedly an air hostess, came forward with her passport and other documents to establish her relationship with Geeta Kapoor at the local police station. She expressed her wish to do the last rites all by herself. As she had documents to prove her identity, she was allowed to perform the cremation and the last rites. Unfortunately, she chose to do it in the dead of night, depriving Geeta Kapoor’s well-wishers a chance to say a final good bye to the actor, and leaving Pandit crestfallen.

Probably, there is a touch of poetic justice to it all. Geeta Kapoor was never supposed to be in the spotlight. She was just supposed to act her part, then merge with the shadows, leaving the stage to bigger, more fortunate stars. She went the way she lived—in anonymity, in near total darkness. Yet with her departure, she left a lesson for posterity: not everybody who comes to tinsel town gets to live his or her dreams. Working in small roles in over a hundred films is no guarantee of a peaceful autumn sonata. Indeed, she was that fallen twig that belonged to no one.

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