An actor for all seasons

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A tribute by Shoma A. Chatterji to Shashi Kapoor, the talented and charismatic actor, whose contribution to Indian theatre has also been most exemplary.

It is indeed rare to find a handsome young man who is as sophisticated as he is grounded enough to reach out to his fans, his audience and other frills, if one attempted to reach out to him. This exceptional man who rose from being a child actor to one of the most smashingly handsome, romantic heroes in Indian cinema is none other than Shashi Kapoor (1938-2017), the youngest son of the late Prithviraj Kapoor and the youngest brother of Raj Kapoor. In a family surrounded by celebrities across the world of Indian cinema, he could easily have been sucked into a world of anonymity, given that he was not media-savvy, and neither did his persona and lifestyle generate the kind of gossip fans and the media are pulled by. Yet, he created a distinct image as actor, producer, performer and family man, creating his own style of acting and personality.

He did not run after roles and films. Producers and directors too, did not chase him the way they would chase an Amitabh Bachchan or a Dharmendra at their peak. Yet, he did not budge from living life on his own terms that extended to defining his career as an actor and a producer. It was his dignity that marked him out among both the Kapoors and the film industry he belonged to. He began his career as a child actor in Raj Kapoor’s Aag (1948) and then in Awara as the younger Raj. He did his stint as child actor in several other films till he veered to theatre as he grew up. He did a child role in Sangram (1950) too.

‘Lent’ to Geoffrey Kendall
As he grew up, his father ‘lent’ him to his British friend Geoffrey Kendall who ran his own theatre group Shakespereana, which staged mainly English plays from Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw among others. He was just 19 when Shashi Kapoor joined the group in 1957 that took him through the rough road of polishing up his English, that demanded an impeccable command that happened slowly but smoothly. The story of his personal life began to write itself out during his tenure with Shakespeareana. He met and fell in love with Jennifer Kendall, the older of Geoffrey Kendal’s two daughters, both an integral part of the group. The father, when he learnt of his prime performer’s love for the young Indian actor with a bad English accent, he was furious. They eloped and got married in Calcutta much to the chagrin of Geoffrey Kendall, and the angry father accepted the marriage only after the first of the three kids, Kunal, was born. They were forced to hide out in Malaysia and Singapore to escape the wrath of Geoffrey, but were pathetically short of funds. Shashi’s middle brother Shammi Kapoor and his wife Geeta, once a noted actress, came to their help when they wished to come back to India. Thus began a love story that came to an end only when Jennifer passed away.

His Bollywood journey
Shashi’s successful career as a romantic hero in Hindi cinema was somewhat sidetracked by the fact that he played a parallel role in many films in which Amitabh Bachchan got the meatier role. This did not seem to queer his pitch and he went on, unabated, knowing fully well that his talents remained unexplored for a long time. It is indeed one of the ironies of destiny that the same young man who was constantly the object of ridicule for his ‘terrible’ English by his British father-in-law was the unquestioned choice for the lead role in many Merchant-Ivory films in which his brilliance outshone his own performances in films like Deewar, Trishul, Shaan, Namak Halal, Kabhi Kabhie and Do Aur Do Paanch. Shashi had the softer, romantic image, while Amitabh strode all across the screen as the angry young man who stole the show because his was the author-backed role. Even so, Shashi left tiny nuggets of his talent behind in a few scenes. This includes the memorable scene in the film Deewar. It is an exchange between the two estranged brothers who live separately. Bachchan asks Shashi Kapoor what has he (Kapoor) got in life being an honest cop – a job, a uniform, a government quarter and look at him (Bachchan). He has amassed much wealth, property. He has everything. Kapoor retorts, “Mere paas maa hai” (I have our mother with me), leading it to become one of the most iconic lines of Hindi cinema.

The iconic scene from Deewar – Mera paas maa hai!

There is a scene in Trishul where Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) deliberately hides the keys of Shashi Kapoor’s two wheeler so that he misses his appointment with his lady love (Hema Malini). When he realises that he has been tricked so as to miss the appointment, he simply smiles quietly and does not comment at all. It was a controlled gesture than gave away the low-key character he had to portray.

His was a career harmoniously balanced between significant films and commercial bonanzas. He walked the tightrope very well, and since he was not media savvy, he attracted the least gossip. His stint with good cinema began with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant films which opened with The Householder based on the novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala opposite the beautiful Leela Naidu, in which they played a newly married couple trying to cope with the ups and downs of a newly formed relationship. The Ivory-Kapoor-Merchant relationship continued with many films such as Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust (1983) and several more films. Heat and Dust, based on a novel by Ruth Jhabvala that won the Booker Prize in 1975, looks at the adventures of a woman (Julie Christie), who travels to India to find more about her step-grandmother in the days of the British Raj in India. They also worked together in Bombay Talkie. Another outstanding feature of his character was the resurrection of his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre which is taken care of by daughter Sanjana. He also produced some films without looking at the market risks involved, an one of them was, 36, Chowringhee Lane directed by Aparna Sen.

Shashi Kapoor was one of the most romantic heroes in Hindi cinema whose smashing looks turned to be a deterrent for him so far as his acting talents went. So, it took many years till he finally got the National Award for Best Actor for his outstanding performance in Romesh Sharma’s New Delhi Times where he excelled in the role of an honest and objective editor who is unwittingly caught between the political conspiracies of two bigwigs who use his editorial position for their own devious ends. It was a beautiful film that turned out to be a flop at the box office. He leaves behind his three children, Karan, Kunal and Sanjana, none of who followed their parents in adopting acting as a career.

Aseem Chhabra has written a beautiful biography of the actor called Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star, published by Rupa Publications in 2016.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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