Dashing and ever so classy, Shashi Kapoor who passed away on Monday at 79 had the most unique trajectory among the Kapoors. While he was a huge commercial star in his own right, he was also the only one in the clan who kept the art of theatre – the original Kapoor metier – alive and became the champion of alternative cinema when being artsy was not all that cool. The signs that this Kapoor lad would turn out differently were all there bang from the beginning. Look at Dharmputra (1961), his first major role as a leading man. In this black-and-white Yash Chopra film, perhaps his most personal yet, Kapoor plays a Hindu fundamentalist in pre-Independent India. He’s a poet with a heart full of Muslim vitriol. “They are the enemy of Hindu culture,” Dilip, played by Shashi Kapoor, tells his doctor father and in return, receives a verbal thrashing on his myopic reading of India’s culture. There’s a disturbing truth staring at Dilip. Can he face up to the devastating revelation that he could be a Muslim, after all?
With his pencil thin moustache and mannerisms, Dharmputra’s Kapoor is a curious mix of his elder brothers, Raj and Shammi who were superstars even before he burst on to the scene. But Shashi Kapoor didn’t have to fight off the resemblance too hard. As he went along, he was carving his own niche. By the 1970s, as the elder Kapoors were approaching their autumn years, The Householder star was in full bloom of his superstardom. His sterling partnership with Amitabh Bachchan was the highlight of this phase of Kapoor’s career. While Bachchan’s Vijay may have been the scene-stealer (and this could be attributed to the general mood of the 1970s which hit the romantic stars like Shashi Kapoor the hardest) in films like Deewaar and Trishul, ‘Ravi’ left his own mark. If Bachchan got the meatiest part in Deewaar, then Kapoor certainly got the best line. “Mere paas maa hai,” has transcended its ‘two brothers on the opposite sides of morality’ setting to assume an iconic place in pop culture. It has come to personify Bollywood itself.
Also read: Actor Shashi Kapoor passes away
But of course, Shashi Kapoor is more than just ‘Mere paas maa hai.’ Besides being a blockbuster hero who gave us such hits as Waqt, Jab Jab Phool Khile, Suhaag and Kabhi Kabhie among a dozen others, he also exhibited a sensitive side as a producer. He was already doing a lot for theatre, supported ably by his wife Jennifer Kendal who came from a family that was committed to the stage. They met while both were involved in theatre and fell in love. According to Kapoor’s son Kunal, who runs Prithvi Theatre along with sister Sanjana, “Before my parents got married, they both worked with Shakespeareana. They were in Singapore and Malaysia for a show, but the shows were cancelled and they were broke. Raj (Kapoor) uncle gave them money for their tickets and they came to Mumbai and got married (in 1958).”
Kapoor was one of Bollywood’s first crossover stars. An important chapter in the life of both Kapoor and wife Kendal was their association with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. It started with The Householder in 1963, culminating in Muhafiz/In Custody, which remains one of Shashi Kapoor’s most under-rated gems. In it, he plays the corpulent Urdu poet uttering Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s revolutionary poetry. Based on the acclaimed Anita Desai novel, Kapoor is Nur, the doyen going to literary seed. Surrounded by lackeys mooching off him, Nur is the last of the greats. He will die unsung, his funeral set to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s rousing poetry Aaj bazaar mein. But this was certainly not the last of Kapoor’s ties with meaningful cinema. It was, in fact, merely the beginning.
In late 1970s, Shashi Kapoor, as the conscientious producer, came as a God send to men like Shyam Benegal. The Benegal-Kapoor team produced such ground-breaking cinema as Junoon and Kalyug. From this phase, one must mention Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane – a Kapoor production starring Jennifer Kendal as an Anglo-Indian teacher in Calcutta. This was the Shakespeare-loving Kapoor’s tribute to the Bard, a joy that one assumes Kendal and he must have shared together as theatre lovers.
In many different ways, Shashi Kapoor was the most unusual Kapoor. As a member of Bollywood’s most distinguished family, some would say he was born to greatness. But his illustrious life proves that he was a man all his own. Even if he was not a Kapoor, he would have achieved greatness nonetheless. His death is a huge loss.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)