Barring the defiant undertone of his “mere paas maa hai” dialogue, what else will our generation remember Shashi Kapoor for? He would be remembered primarily for daring to be different and retaining his identity without imitating others, spurning the rat race in favour of quality cinema at least in the latter part of his career.
In an age when actors were crassly stereotyped, the youngest of Prithviraj Kapoor’s sons bucked the trend. In fact, he was quite the opposite of most prevailing labels that spelt success in the Hindi film industry in the 1960s and ’70s. For instance, he was no “He-Man”, his rare action sequences appearing rather unconvincing by contemporary standards. Arguably, he was a “romantic” actor, with his cheesecake looks and fetching smile, but a mere romantic hero was not considered saleable in that age.
Thus, Shashi could never carry a film to box office success on his shoulders alone. His commercial triumphs came late in his career, particularly as a foil to Amitabh Bachchan. Unlike his elder brothers, he could not etch a cult-like persona through his films.
His sophisticated, westernised appearance, somewhat rasping voice and ability to underplay a screen character relegated him to playing second fiddle even to his heroines (Satyam Shivam Sundaram and Abhinetri, to name just two), quite unusual for his time. Yet he starred in nearly a hundred films as lead actor, meeting with moderate success. But Shashi exuded an easy, enduring charm, often daring to take on roles many of his contemporaries would not.
He was a fixture throughout the age of innocence in Hindi cinema when even professional thieves were portrayed as simple, likeable human beings. The audience applauded when he routed the villain, usually without indulging in serious violence (Chori Mera Kaam and Fakira, for example) because Shashi could never be a “bad” man and his triumphs on screen represented a “good” man’s success with which the viewers empathised.
It is often said, and perhaps rightly, that Shashi was too westernised, having trained in classical English theatre, to receive wide acclaim on the Hindi screen. Some of his more successful films were off the beaten track, Kalyug for example, while his histrionic talents were best expressed in crossover films (the term was not in vogue then) such as Bombay Talkies.
Shashi’s success really came when violence and “jumping Jack hero” films gradually ran out of steam. Brother Shammi was getting on in years and losing his earlier agility and even Jeetendra had over-used the “formula”. While Dharmendra retained his appeal as “He-Man”, every successful actor had begun attempting an image makeover. Jeetendra digressed into Gulzar’s brand of semi-serious films, Dharmendra opted for comedy (Pratiggya and Chupke Chupke, and powerful screenplay-driven movies like his home production Satyakam). Shashi, never known for enacting powerful emotional roles, etched a niche for himself in Bachchan starrers like Deewar, Kabhi Kabhi and the other grossly under-rated Yash Chopra production, Doosra Aadmi, with nephew Rishi Kapoor.
True, he did not dominate the screen space, for it was impossible to do so in any film starring the iconic Amitabh. But without Shashi, these films would not have been memorable. Bachchan got the better dialogues in screenplays written by Salim-Javed but one “maa” dialogue in Deewar made the movie memorable.
The ’70s generation did not queue up for hours for a Shashi Kapoor film’s box office to open on Wednesdays; he was rarely a draw by himself. But, in retrospect, his crossover films like Utsav were widely appreciated and not just because of its so-called adult content.
At a time when stereotyping was the norm, Shashi worked hard not to get typecast and maintained his individuality. His first love being stage acting, he revived the Prithvi Theatre and patronised the Mumbai stage along with wife Jennifer and eventually daughter Sanjana.
In many ways, Shashi was a misfit in the formula-driven cinema of his period. He was an actor who came ahead of his time and had to struggle to remain relevant in an age in which the audience was swayed not just by Shammi Kapoor and Jeetendra but later Rajesh Khanna and finally Amitabh Bachchan. It is worth wondering why, despite his remarkable longevity in the industry, Shashi never qualified as a superstar or even dependable box-office material. But he was always rated as a fine actor who infused life into his roles, be they out and out commercials (such as gyrating on Juhu beach with a mechanical throbbing heart held in his palm) or serious films not meant for front bench applause.
His commitment to meaningful cinema made him choose roles like that of the embattled editor, Vikas Pande, in New Delhi Times, a rare true-to-life depiction of Indian journalism sans the usual exaggeration and mockery. Films like these were by definition for the classes and not expected to make it to the Rs 100 crore league (or whatever was the monetary benchmark of success then).
He made this transition after starring in many eminently forgettable run-of-the-mill movies such as Aamne Saamne. His dancing talent, common to the entire Kapoor khandaan, was evident in all such films — “nain milakar chain churana kiska hai yeh kaam” — in Aamne Saamne, for example. Kanyadaan’s soulful number, “likhe jo khat tujhe”, penned by Neeraj, forerunner to Prem Pujari’s “phoolon ke rang se”, was another exceptional number picturised on the romantic hero, which made the film a draw. Shashi’s box office success, whatever he enjoyed of it, waned as the age of the formula film faded into oblivion. And that was good for him. He was just not cut out to be a typical formula hero because overacting — a necessary ingredient of an actor’s commercial success in the ’60s and ’70s — was not his forte.
The remarkable tributes that have flowed in after his death testify to the respect he earned through his career without ever becoming a cult figure. He was a gentleman and an actor who stuck to his guts, never cowed down by the commercial success of his brothers or contemporaries. Shashi Kapoor refused to be an also-ran; he determinedly charted his own path and succeeded in what he set out to achieve. We will remember him for the firm determination that hid behind his disarming smile.