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A star of multiple hues
Saibal Chatterjee December 07, 2017
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Shashi Kapoor, a Mumbai cinema icon whose lustre is never likely to dim, was India’s first genuine crossover star. He straddled many worlds. In a screen acting career that lasted three decades and a bit, not only did the youngest of the illustrious Kapoor brothers obliterate the divide between commercial Mumbai films and independent arthouse cinema, he also successfully went international, starring in several British and American films, most notably for Merchant-Ivory Productions in the 1960s and 1970s.  

That apart, Shashi Kapoor’s contribution to theatre is second to none. Unlike his elder brothers Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, who cut their teeth in the hurly-burly of the Mumbai movie industry, the Calcutta-born Shashi worked his way into filmdom after a long stint as an assistant stage manager and actor with his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s itinerant troupe Prithvi Theatres. It was during these tours in the 1950s that Shashi met his future wife Jennifer Kendall, who was travelling across India with her father Geoffrey Kendall’s theatre company Shakespearana.    

When Prithvi Theatres shut shop in 1960, Shashi branched out into the movies. He had, of course, made a mark already as a child star, having acted in Aag (1948), Sangram (1950) and Awaara (1951) even as he travelled with his father to various Indian cities with Prithvi’s theatre productions.

Needless to say, Shashi Kapoor had a super-successful movie career, but he wasn’t content with fame and money. He constantly went beyond his comfort zone and figured in international productions such as Heat and Dust and The Deceivers, besides bankrolling film and theatre initiatives that have had a lasting impact on both domains of creative endeavor.   

Once he had made enough money from his acting assignments – there was a phase in the 1970s when he was by far the busiest Mumbai movie actor and paid more than his contemporaries – Shashi did something that only a true patron of the arts would do: in 1978, he rebuilt and revived Prithvi Theatres and set up his own boutique film production company Film Valas. Under the latter banner, between 1978 and 1984, he produced five exquisitely crafted films – Shyam Benegal’s Junoon and Kalyug, Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta, Girish Karnad’s Utsav and Aparna Sen’s directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane, starring his wife Jennifer Kendall in an acclaimed lead role.

He was a part of the cast of three of these films – Junoon, Kalyug and Vijeta. Continuing in the same vein, Shashi played the lead as a newspaper editor caught up in the Indian capital’s political power games in the unforgettable New Delhi Times, scripted by Gulzar and directed by Ramesh Sharma.  

All the films that Shashi Kapoor produced were critically applauded, but none of them made money, least of all Ajooba, a fantasy film that he directed with his frequent co-star Amitabh Bachchan and nephew Rishi Kapoor in the principal roles. Film Valas collapsed as a result. But Prithvi Theatres took off famously and quickly became an active hub for theatre practitioners from around the country. It will remain forever Shashi Kapoor’s greatest legacy.

Blessed with oodles of sophisticated charm and a winning smile that could disarm the most hardened of souls, Shashi the film actor made his debut in Yash Chopra’s Dharmputra (1961) and went on to appear in a string of commercial successes in which he acted opposite virtually all the top female and male stars of the era. In many of these films, he played second fiddle, especially to Amitabh Bachchan, but he never ever failed to hold his own. 

Regarded as a gentleman of the highest order, he was an embodiment of refinement, a trait that served as a much-needed counterpoint to the heightened machismo of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young persona and Vinod Khanna’s broad-shouldered masculinity. But Shashi wasn’t just another romantic hero. Such was the diversity of the roles that he played that he was never in danger of being typecast.

Deewaar, which is understandably regarded as Amitabh Bachchan’s film, is remembered for a single line that Shashi’s character in the film spouted in response to an angry outburst from his disgruntled brother: “Mera paas maa hai.” Contrast that with the energy and abandonment that he brought to the Chor Machaye Shor number Le jayenge le jayenge dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge and you know why this man was such a natural.

His training in theatre armed him with both discipline and equanimity. So no matter what role he was called upon to play, he would plunge whole-heartedly into it, conveying to the audience in the process the joy that he derived from the craft of acting. The length and the importance of the role never mattered to him. He approached every assignment as just another job and he did it to the best of his ability. His primary strength lay in investing every performance with a free-spirited quality that helped him make an instant connection with the viewers.

Whether he was playing the character of the feckless teacher Prem Sagar in The Householder (1963) or the newspaper editor Vikas Pande in New Delhi Times (1985), or any of the roles that he essayed in the 100-odd commercially-oriented films, Shashi Kapoor was always on the top of his game. His last major film role in Ismail Merchant’s In Custody, released in 1993, fetched him unstinted accolades. He withdrew from the spotlight when he was only in his mid-50s, but he continued to live in the hearts of his countless fans, as the eternal charmer most certainly will even after his final exit from the theatre of life.
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