Shashi Kapoor: Stuff of dreams

Shashi Kapoor (1938-2017) was Hindi cinema’s most good-looking actor, but his persona was even more handsome.

Published : Dec 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Shashi Kapoor.

Shashi Kapoor.

IF one were to compile a list of Hindi cinema’s best-looking men, Shashi Kapoor would be the unanimous choice to begin it with. His cheerful eyes kept sorrow at a distance from his face. His smile, extending from ear to ear, and his inimitable onscreen sprightliness lingered long after the show. The rub of his hands conveyed that everything was fine with the world. His face was meant for love and all the joys of life, melancholy was best avoided. Indeed, he was the kind of guy girls could take home to meet their mother, with the added element of mischief enhancing his appeal.

Yet, his dashing good looks were far from a blessing. In an industry that revels in stereotypes, film-makers seldom looked beyond his good looks. This often translated into a reluctance to give him a role he could really dig his teeth into. He was always that debonair guy who would sing a couple of songs with a smile on his lips, romance the heroine, exhibit a bit of wit, and finally be the winner. No disguises. No debate. Warm familiarity. Comfortable predictability. Yet the masses loved him. Whether it was “Le jayenge, le jayenge, dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge” in Chor Machaye Shor (1974) or “Likhe jo khat tujhe” in Kanyadaan (1968), the multitudes believed he was born to romance. Violence, anger and frustration were not for him. It was always about love. And so good was he at expressing the emotion that films such as Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Kanyadaan and Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973) became box-office hits purely on the strength of his charisma. His heroines, ranging from Babita to Nanda and later Neetu Singh and Rakhee, would at best play second fiddle in this unalloyed expression of the best human emotion.

His looks were best exploited in the timeless Yash Chopra film, Kabhi Kabhie . In the title song “Kabhi kabhie mere dil mein khayal aata hai”, the camera pans Amitabh Bachchan in many a long shot, giving ample space for the scenery—the trees, the fallen leaves—and concentrates only occasionally on his looks. When it comes to Shashi Kapoor, it is all about capturing his visage, his twinkling eyes and his radiant smile. So much so that he seems a better friend of the camera than the lead female actor, Rakhee Gulzar.

Before Kabhi Kabhie , Shashi Kapoor was chosen to play the honest cop who nabs his brother (Amitabh Bachchan) who is a smuggler, in Yash Chopra’s Deewar . Again, Shashi Kapoor was chosen because he could play a dashing and clean police officer, not necessarily a guy who could dirty his hands in the underbelly of crime. Yet, Shashi Kapoor left an indelible mark in a film in which Salim-Javed’s dialogues were meant to showcase Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man. When the film went on to complete a golden jubilee, people were unanimous about Bachchan’s ability to carry off a role where he expressed the anguish and the anger of the masses. Yet, not many could recall any of Bachchan’s well-rendered dialogues in the film. The one they remembered the most was mouthed with uncanny ease by Shashi Kapoor, “Mere paas maa hai”. More than 40 years after the line was spoken, it lives on and on, merely underlining the undoubted ability of Shashi Kapoor to deliver when presented with an opportunity. Such opportunities were few and far between. More often than not, Shashi Kapoor was the handsome guy who could do little else than sing and drool over the leading lady. The best example of this is seen in Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), a film where he was not more than a prop to Zeenat Aman’s unbridled charm. Yet, he managed to sneak in briefly when he appeared bare-chested, standing under the waterfall in the song sequence “Yashomati maiya se bole nandalala”. However, when he took to fisticuffs or picked up a gun in films such as Trishul (1977) and Kala Patthar (1979), the best place to look was elsewhere. He was not made for sterner stuff.

Shashi Kapoor never carped and complained about his limitations as an actor or the denial of opportunity. Like water in full flow, he decided to find his own way. It came in the form of his tryst with English films such as The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Heat and Dust (1983) and In Custody (1993). Shashi Kapoor was the first Indian actor to bridge the great East-West divide. Later, he notched up another first: becoming the first actor to try his hand at parallel cinema. Even as he acted in numerous mainstream Hindi films in the 1970s and the early 1980s, he found space and stamina to produce films such as Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Vijeta (1982) and Utsav (1984).

Incidentally, though Shashi Kapoor started as an adult star with Dharmaputra in 1961—he had acted in Aag (1948) and Awara (1951) as a child artist. It was in the 1970s that Shashi Kapoor became a reliable name at the box office. Whether he delivered solo hits, or was cast in multi-starrers, he was the most prolific in the 1970s, even up to the early 1980s. Starting with Sharmeelee (1971) with Rakhee in the female lead, there was hardly a year when cinema halls did not screen Shashi Kapoor’s films. Sharmeelee was followed by Siddhartha (1972), a United States film production based on the Herman Hesse novel. Then came Chor Machaye Shor, Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974), Chori Mera Kaam (1975), Prem Kahani (1975), Deewar (1975), Kabhie Kabhie (1976), Fakira (1976), Imaan Dharam (1977), Trishul (1978), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Kala Pathar (1979) and Duniya Meri Jeb Mein (1979). In the 1980s, he did Do aur Do Paanch and Shaan (1980), Silsila (1981) and Namak Halal (1982), to name a few. They all proved one thing: Shashi Kapoor was very much a bankable star. Many loved him, most admired him, nobody hated him.

Seamless transition However, the worth of the 1970s and early 1980s went way beyond box office pickings, for this was the time when he assisted his brother, Shammi Kapoor, in his directorial debut Manoranjan (1974). It was also the time he started his own production house, Film Valas, in 1976 and produced Shyam Benegal’s Junoon . The film was a literary treat. Based on Ruskin Bond’s novella A Flight of Pigeons , it had dialogues by luminaries such as Ismat Chughtai and Satyadev Dubey. He went on to produce Kalyug , again directed by Benegal, and Utsav , directed by Girish Karnad. These were followed by New Delhi Times with director Ramesh Sharma and briefly Gulzar’s Ijaazat . The movies underlined his utility as an actor and proved that Shashi Kapoor could surmount his good looks, leave his stardom behind and don the mantle of an actor. If he did not do it often enough, the fault lay with the film-makers, as exemplified by Manoj Kumar’s choice of Kapoor to play a fair-skinned prince in Kranti . His transition from mainstream film-makers such as Prakash Mehra, Manoj Kumar, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy and Shakti Samanta to art-house bigwigs such as Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad and Aparna Sen was seamless. As was his switch from Hindi films to English ventures with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

Shashi Kapoor had no hang-ups. If in commercial cinema he did not mind playing second hero to Amitabh Bachchan in more than a dozen films, and to Rajesh Khanna in Prem Kahani and Alag Alag (1985), he was happy to do a small part in director G.V. Iyer’s Swami Vivekananda (1998), which was basically an ode to Mithun Chakraborty’s skills as an actor. In fact, it is his ability to conquer his ego and play a smaller role with aplomb that stood out in his career. Not many would have agreed to play a minor character in director K. Ravi Shankar’s Sindoor (1987), again a heroine-oriented film with Jayaprada in the lead role and Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Jeetendra sharing screen space with her. The handsome man of Hindi cinema had no compunctions about etching out the role of a greying, pot-bellied husband of a young woman. Roles could be pivotal or peripheral; he could hold his own without making his co-stars insecure. Unfortunately, it was in the 1980s that his life changed beyond recognition. With his wife Jennifer Kendal’s death, Shashi Kapoor was left with the care of three little children. He never fully overcame the loss of his wife, and ended up putting on undesirable kilos. Commando (1988) and Ajooba (1991), which he produced and directed, were all that he was left with. Shashi Kapoor was consigned to memory sooner than he deserved to be and much earlier than his fans anticipated.

Despite his love for the cinema, it was theatre that fascinated Shashi Kapoor. Inspired by Jennifer Kendal, he took Prithvi Theatre, the repertory company started by his father, Prithviraj Kapoor, in 1944, to great heights. The son gave it a permanent address, and a place for all lovers of theatre to call their own. Shashi Kapoor’s daughter, Sanjana, took over the management of Prithvi Theatres after the death of Jennifer Kendal, resisting the charms of cinema to concentrate on the medium. Shashi Kapoor was so keen to get theatre to be a self-reliant medium that he used to pay for his ticket at Prithvi Theatre. This was his way of paying back his father for the family name and the skills as an artiste that he inherited.

Shashi Kapoor’s contribution to cinema and theatre was acknowledged quite belatedly with the conferment of the Padma Bhushan in 2011 and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2014. These were an addition to the National Award for the Best Film (1979) and Filmfare award for Best Film (1980) for Junoon and the National Award for Best Actor (1986) for New Delhi Times . The awards were a mere reiteration of Shashi Kapoor’s talent and commitment to cinema. He was a rare human being who did not allow his stardom to overpower him. He almost always returned a journalist’s call. His fans in Peshawar (Pakistan) held a condolence meeting and put up huge posters and billboards across the city—a testimony to his popularity on the other side of Punjab.

Shashi Kapoor was confined to a wheelchair in the last years of his life, but he will always be remembered as a hero who made dreams not just possible but plausible.

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