Growing up in Pakistan with Shashi Kapoor

The more relaxed and fun-loving Shashi Kapoor bore a strong resemblance to my father, while my hyper-aggressive uncle was much more like Amitabh Bachchan.

Written by Ammara Ahmad | Updated: December 7, 2017 4:19 pm
Actor Shashi Kapoor. Express archive photo

The first time I noticed Shashi Kapoor was when he married Amitabh Bachchan’s girlfriend, Rakhi, in ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ and the latter sang a forlorn song in her former lover’s memory on their wedding night. My sympathies were with Amitabh and Rakhi.

A few years and many Indian movies later, I began to appreciate though not necessarily approve the nuances of love triangles, adulterous affairs and tragic romances. I saw a television show discuss the cult classic ‘Silsila’. The host praised Shashi Kapoor repeatedly.

He now returned on my radar, not just as a policeman or hotel owner, but as a person.

When my sister and I were growing up in the 1990s in Pakistan, we were entertainment-starved. There was very little for children to watch and not much more for adults either. There was one uptight state-run TV channel, Pakistan TV, perhaps because Pakistani society was – and perhaps, still is – recovering from Zia-ul-Haq’s miscarried “Islamization” that had choked the performing arts.

In those times we had the VCR. My uncle rented many Indian films which we, the children in the house, watched secretly despite his strict warning not to do so.

My uncle, who lived with us, was over six feet tall, wheatish-complexioned and hyper-aggressive — like Amitabh Bachchan’s characters often were. My father who was posted in Balochistan at the time, appeared to be more relaxed and fun. So I started relating with Shashi Kapoor who bore a strong resemblance to my father, unlike Bachchan who seemed much more like my uncle.

I also developed an appreciation for urbane and romantic heroes such as Farooq Sheikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Sanjeev Kumar and Kamal Hassan. I had an aversion for the “angry young man” and action heroes those days.

Shashi Kapoor’s memorial held in Peshawar – outside his father’s Prithviraj Kapoor’s house where his elder brother Raj Kapoor was born. He visited the house in the late 90s. (Source: Twitter/ @ammarawrites)

Before the end of the last millennium the dish antenna became common and so did dozens of Indian channels in Pakistani homes. These channels were the opposite of Pakistan TV – they were informal, obsessed with music, dance and of course, films. Around the same time, my twin sister tragically died of cancer; I was still processing the loss and loneliness that followed it. These new Indian channels came to my rescue. I spent my pre-teen years and post-school hours huddled in front of my uncle’s television upstairs.

I didn’t understand much English then and the latest Bollywood films were still mostly out of reach. So I watched the 1960s and 70s films – usually several times over.

Most of these films had Shashi Kapoor as the side hero, which I started considering to be a tad unfair. My sister, as mentioned above, was dying, and invariably was the centre of my attention. But my parents were not always in Lahore due to work reasons, and I did poorly at school.

So I identified with the characters whose love was either unrequited or those who died too soon or those, who for various reasons, had to sacrifice their love.

Shashi Kapoor looked like my father, behaved very differently from the “alpha” Punjabi males around me and was a sidelined star which I (childishly) considered myself to be too. Eventually, both Shashi and I benefitted from this lack of super-stardom and conventional success. He moved on from commercial films to theater and parallel cinema. I joined a profession which no one in my science-obsessed family had ever imagined — journalism.

All through my growing up years, I continued to follow Shashi Kapoor closely. I saw that he had started experimenting with period movies such as ‘Junoon’ and ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’, the latter in English. ‘Utsav’ was shot both in Hindi and English. The last film he is known to have directed was ‘Ajooba’ in 1991, a superhero fantasy based on One Thousand and One Nights starring Amitabh Bachchan. The film was dubbed in Russian and released in the (former) Soviet Union.

I realized that more than any of his brothers, Shashi Kapoor had broken free from convention and examined other avenues of the performing arts.

For example, his exceptional relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. Their off-screen bond translated into three wonderful films, namely ‘The Householder’, ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ and ‘Heat and Dust’.
He worked with Bimal Roy more than once and with Shyam Benegal in ‘Kalyug’. Meena Kumari helped him with his voice modulation. The incredible (and incredibly bohemian) Aparna Sen was also Shashi Kapoor’s discovery. He refused the National Award for ‘Dharmputra’ because he felt his performance wasn’t worth it.

Shashi was exceptional in love too. In those days male actors took pride in their promiscuity and romances. And of course Raj Kapoor’s romantic associations were the folklore of his times. I was watching closely, of course.

But Shashi had found an extraordinary love in theater. He married Jennifer Kendal, who played Desdemona and he played her father Brabantio. Then when I saw him in the movies much later, much larger and much less given to emotion, I reckoned the change had come because of Jennifer’s untimely death. Grief can push people towards health problems, particularly in the later years of their lives, and especially when the person is artistic in temperament.

The twinkle-eyed Shashi will always be part of my childhood – evading murderers on a boat, catching his wife touch the feet of her former husband on a train station or conspiring to steal a big-bosomed woman’s necklace while Parveen Babi bewitched the audience (and Amitabh) with a song.

I will always cherish his inconspicuous grandeur and be inspired by how he carved his own path in life and art.

Ammara Ahmad is a journalist based in Lahore and tweets @ammarawrites. Her work can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com

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