Shooting star: The incredible life of Shashi Kapoor captured in a book

Without Shashi Kapoor, there would be a big, ugly hole in the landscape of Indian cinema. A biography does justice to the incredible versatility of the actor

Written by Beth Watkins | Updated: June 4, 2016 1:19 pm

sashi

Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star
Aseem Chhabra
Rupa
216 pages
` 395

“As I pieced together interviews for this book, I realized that many people had forgotten Shashi Kapoor,” writes journalist Aseem Chhabra in the introduction to his new biography of the third son of the second generation of the Kapoor dynasty.

Of all the Hindi film stars from the 1960s to 1980s, how could people forget Shashi Kapoor? He did everything. He was a major mainstream hero and a stalwart of multi-starrers, a producer of highly-regarded parallel cinema, a player of leading roles in international productions, and a dedicated supporter of theatre. Almost 50 years before Priyanka Chopra sang for the National Football League on American TV, Shashi Kapoor starred as a gigolo in a romance with Disney child star Hayley Mills in a film based on a Noël Coward story (Pretty Polly, 1967)—but most people don’t remember that, if they ever knew it in the first place.

How fickle is cultural memory, somehow able to misplace the contributions of such an artist, and how amazing is the true story of Kapoor’s career. That is exactly the reason you should devour Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star: it’s astounding that he did all of this so successfully, having three careers when other actors would be desperate to excel at just one.

Chhabra’s discussion and analysis of the actor’s work are chronological and also pick up the threads of these seemingly divergent worlds the actor was involved in, following each through a selected filmography and including significant quotes from people who worked with the star. Chhabra structured this book wisely, making sense of Kapoor’s life and very broad and deep career. The author also provides enough varied material for readers to understand the complexities of the actor’s love of acting, film and theatre.

Evidence is presented again and again that Shashi Kapoor was a gentleman and a professional as an actor, a true colleague to everyone on his films. He took a chance on small projects that are still held in esteem today, such as the political drama New Delhi Times (1986). The book also shows that Kapoor was working on projects and in ways that nobody else was — and readers are left to realise that if he hadn’t made the commitments he did, there would be holes in the landscapes of Hindi and India-focused international cinema of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Can you imagine anyone else as the vain and selfish matinee idol in Bombay Talkie or the soul-searcher of Siddhartha or the calm, classy foil to Amitabh Bachchan’s storm?

sashi-kapor Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu in The Householder

Significantly (and very unusually for non-academic books on Hindi cinema), Chhabra has footnoted his references, so it’s easy to follow up on whatever stories tantalize you the most. For example, if your heartstrings ping at the romance between Shashi and his English wife Jennifer Kendal, whom he met while both were working in their families’ traveling theatre troupes, you should dive into the early chapters of the autobiography by Jennifer’s sister Felicity, who evocatively details their love story. This may be particularly handy in exploring his masala filmography, which is too vast to be covered in a book of this length. Chhabra has included a list of the films broken down by co-star, leading to discoveries like how often he appeared with Rekha and how seldom with Asha Parekh.

If your experience of Shashi Kapoor’s work has focused on only one of these areas — just the Merchant and Ivory films, for example, or just the 1970s masala — Chhabra has surprises for you. There are films that bombed at the box office, films that barely got made, films that involved a United Nations-worthy slate of collaborators, and adventures with the biggest names in Hindi cinema like Yash Chopra, Manmohan Desai, and, of course, Amitabh Bachchan. If you are a particular fan of the actor, you will already be familiar with some of the anecdotes and history (Shashi warning Amitabh away from bit parts, resulting in him bailing on Bombay Talkie), but they’re organised in a new and very useful way, and the range of interviewees and resources (such as co-star Sharmila Tagore, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, among others) means the perspectives are fresh and diverse. It’s a rich, engaging telling of a story we think we know.

When I express my love of this actor, people often reply with “Mere paas Maa hai,” the infamous retort from his famous role as the goody-goody cop brother in Deewaar, as though that summed up a career. Chhabra’s biography could change that. He proves, carefully and with great affection, how Shashi Kapoor is so much more than that.

 

Beth Watkins lives in the US and has been writing about Hindi cinema for over a decade at www.bethlovesbollywood.com

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