Tumsa nahin dekha

His green-grey eyes were a bit damp, his complexion was apple red to the last, and his voice had husked with age. He excelled in eye contact while conversing, he was firm about his opinions, and perhaps self-amused that there was a time when he was a rebel without a cause.
No actor in my living memory achieved that twist of sobriety in the manner which Shammi Kapoor did. Right from his mid-50s to the age of 79 when he passed away, there was this astonishing pendulum-swing change of personality from the boisterous yahoo hero to the almost-reclusive Kapoor on the hill.
He resided with his close-knit family for decades on Mount Pleasant Road, located in Mumbai’s most-desired address, Malabar Hill. The apartment building is named Blue Haven. “Why blue?” he would wonder. “Its front has been painted in so many colours but never blue.” A look from those swimming eyes would follow, no laughter. Half a smile, maybe.
Like his younger brother Shashi Kapoor, the actor-star had to struggle during the kick-off years, featuring in forgettable films, albeit with evocative titles like Rail Ka Dibba and Miss Coca Cola. Astride a tonga, serenading his coy heroine Ameeta with the title song of Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), he cantered out of the flop category. That delightful tonga ride of a movie was in black-and-white, so was Dil Dekhe Dekho, again a music-soaked entertainer.
Significantly, Shammi Kapoor’s Junglee, the yahoo flick, shot sumptuously in Kashmir, ushered in the era of the colourful, breezy romances. Its debutante leading lady, Saira Banu, returned with him in Bluff Master, but delayed the project it is conjectured, because she wanted it to be re-shot in colour. Today, its signature song Govinda ala re, picturised on the actor on the streets, continues to be blared during Janmashtami all over the country. And his free-form street dance has been imitated but never bettered.
It wasn’t easy to mimic the actor. He had this style which was all over the place, part Elvis Presley, but for the most part, uniquely himself. His dance steps seem improvised (check out Ai ai ya karoon main kya Suku Suku), he was spontaneity personified and could segue into the serious mode in flashes, like his bittersweet enactment of an orphanage’s angel guardian (Brahmachari).
In Professor, he was the young man in an old man’s guise, and in Teesri Manzil, the club musician enmeshed in a murder, a role which was curiously nixed by Dev Anand. Among some of his films which thrilled generations from the 1950s to the 1970s count Ujala, China Town, Dil Tera Deewana, An Evening In Paris, Kashmir Ki Kali, Janwar, and Andaz with which he ended his career as a leading man. His shift to character parts was smooth, but in between his shots at direction (Manoranjan, Bundalbaaz) didn’t find favour with the masses or the mandarins.
The songs playbacked for him by Mohammed Rafi are many and imperishable. Each aficionado of vintage B-town music has a favourite. In terms of fashion, Shammi Kapoor wore a grungy look as well as custom-made suits.
Right till the setting in of middle age, the star was a typical Kapoor, fond of la dolce vita. He tended to put on weight but then it is unimaginable to think of a lean Shammi. He became more sedentary after leaving the centrestage of showbiz, but found an option in the vast world of Internet. He designed a Kapoor Khandan website and was a regular on networking sites, a friend on Facebook, but irregular as his health declined.
His second wife, Neela Devi Gohil, brought stability to the actor when he was wild and reckless. Perhaps he never recovered from the sudden death of Geeta Bali, whom he had eloped with and married in the cover of the night at the famed Banganga temple, just a pebble’s throw away from Blue Haven.
My meetings with Shammi Kapoor were few. He was miffed because of an incident at the Filmfare Awards. He had agreed to hand over a special trophy for the completion of 50 years of the RK banner to his nephews Randhir, Rishi and Rajiv Kapoor. The compere of the evening, Simi Garewal, raised some inexplicable objections to that. She was told that it wasn’t her call, she had to call Shammiji on stage. But when the moment came that evening, Simi took her own unilateral decision. She called Pooja Bhatt to the stage instead! Why, I will never know.
After that, Shammi Kapoor didn’t break relations with the magazine, or with me, but yes, the warmth reduced. I was to recover a bit of that bonhomie for just a few hours when I met him, one afternoon, to discuss his fascination with the Internet. His personal computer was lodged in a small, glass-enclosed cabin in the living room. From there he attracted another enormous fan base, another extended family.
And before leaving that afternoon, I’d asked, “What do you think of the word yahoo now that there’s yahoo.mail?”
He looked at me with those moist green-grey eyes and said, “Listen, there’s a life beyond the movies. Stop thinking of cinema all the time. You’ll lead a better, more fulfilled life.”
Shammi Kapoor certainly did.

Khalid Mohamed is a journalist, film critic and film director

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