The timeless poster boy of Hindi cinema

Evenings at Mumbai’s Prithvi theatre, he makes an occasional guest appearance — on a wheelchair. At the end of the performance, he smiles like a Chinese Buddha at those who halt to ask, “Hello sir, how are you?” He nods gratefully, his eyes greying. And then he’s wheeled to his apartment in a high-rise opposite the theatre hub.

It’s just another day in Shashi Kapoor’s paradise. Confession: he was my hero, I-wish-I-was-like-him poster boy of the 1960s. Terrific looks, coiffed and cologned, a jagged but disarming smile, neatly turned out, advancing a fashion statement with those flapper collared silk shirts — floral printed! — and bell bottoms. Many of his films credited wife Jennifer Kendal with the costume designs. Below her credit, the name of the Taj Mahal Hotel boutique would be inscribed: Burlington’s. The boutique is still there, you cannot walk past it without thinking of Shashi Kapoor.
Today’s actors may be inheritors of the Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand styles, but there’s no one who comes quite close to the Shashi Kapoor charisma which was always equated with the “Western… angrez” stereotype. Nasir Husain, who directed him in Pyar Ka Mausam (1969), had said that he appeals essentially to the urban audience, but added, “When he leaves all his doubts at home, then he appeals to all, be it to a college student or a truck driver.”
Indeed, it was facile to call Shashi Kapoor “westernised”, and unfairly sourced in his personal life, since he had a “memsahib” wife. Also his roots in the theatre craft of the Kendals’ Shakespearana troupe made him an oddity of sorts. He travelled extensively, believed in the Bard and literature and actually spoke in his interviews about his elaborate English breakfasts on Sunday. He was house-proud of a library with books that were actually read! And there was that music system playing Mozart, Bach, Beethoven.
For a starry-eyed boy studying in a Bombay school — the Cathedral and John Connon — where other students considered Hindi films infra dig, Shashi Kapoor was a guilty pleasure. When the Shakespearana troupe arrived at Cathedral one afternoon to stage excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was royally ignored. Other students hadn’t heard of him. Because Ivory-Merchant’s The Householder (1963) had arrived and vanished, faster than breeze. Earlier, his B.R. Chopra film Dharmputra (1961), dealing with the serious issue of communal strife had tanked, too.
The fan in me never diminished for Shashi Kapoor. He was so likeable as the poor Kashmiri who in Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) goes bonkers over swanky Nanda. I couldn’t miss a single movie of his, it had to be devoured first-day-first-show. He looked best with Sharmila Tagore (evidence: Aamne Saamne) but was more successful with Nanda, forming a “hit pair” in that era’s magazine terminology. With Hayley Mills in Pretty Polly (1966), he cut a sharp, saturnine figure, but the film was not up to scratch. There was a lull in Shashi Kapoor’s career. Sharmilee (1971) marked the comeback in which he carromed between double-role Raakhees. Occasionally, there would be the odd movie like Dil Ne Pukara (1967) in which Rajshree must choose between him and Sanjay Khan. I remember a reader’s letter to Filmfare. A woman reader deliberated, “But where’s the competition between the two? Which woman would not opt for Shashi, eyes closed?”
I am not sure whether I liked him playing second fiddle to Amitabh Bachchan at all. Bachchan got all the powerful scenes in Deewaar (1975) but there’s a silver lining here. It was Shashi Kapoor who delivered that classic line, “Mere paas maa hai”. Take Do Aur Do Paanch (1980) though. What the hell was he doing, allowing himself to be completely overshadowed?
With time, alas, the urbane actor was typecast in vapid nice-guy roles, as in Namak Halaal (1982) and Ghungroo. Shashi Kapoor was taking the backseat, presumably because he was shifting gears towards producing films of the sensible kind. Monetarily, those films burnt him. Still that was his most admirable phase, as the producer of Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981), Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (with the performance of a lifetime by Jennifer Kendal), Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984) and Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta (1986).
The only film he directed, Ajooba (1991), brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. Compounded with the loss of Jennifer Kendal to cancer, he appeared to have lost his love for life and cinema. Never have I see a man turn from an Adonis to a corpulent figure overnight, his excess weight seemed to cry out, “Who cares?”
Of the three Kapoor brothers, Shashi (born Balbir Raj) was the youngest and the most boyishly endearing. He could have retained his Peter Pan looks but chose not to. Today Shashi Kapoor, at 73, darts a gentle smile. And for that I would like to write him a fan letter once again… to say, “Thank you, sir. I owe you for being my all-time poster boy.”

Khalid Mohamed is a journalist, film critic and film director


Thanks for the lovely

Thanks for the lovely article. Shashi ji is a gem of Indian cinema. He not only charmed on screen with his great looks but also contributed as a producer of meaningful films and as a theatre person which helps so many upcoming artistes, directors, writers et al. Loved visiting Prithvi in Mumbai. It seems he's India's first cross over actor with so many wonderful films in Hollywood & Britain. And he's so down to earth about it.
He also set examples as a great family man.
Loved to hear about his children's work for theatre and ad films and Karan Kapoor's wonderful photography.

Though by the time my generation got big enough to understand his work, Shashiji had retired, and enjoy and continue to enjoy most of his movies on DVD, and TV & by reading.
Among the present actors, the only other name who does such meaningful work is Aamir Khan.
It would have been nice if Shashi ji would have retained some of his looks. But the understandable sadness in his personal life perhaps prevented it. Wish it wasn't so.
Many colleagues and well wishers keep wishing him via blogs, twitter, youtube, FB. It's good to see. Wish him lots of good health, and a long, long life of 100 years, and lots of happiness.May the Almighty make it happen. Amen.

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