When I stepped into the movie industry, Rajesh Khanna was redefining stardom. His rise to the top was seen as a phenomenal event in the history of Hindi cinema. The great Shammi Kapoor was fading into anonymity by then. But nobody who has been touched by Hindi cinema, especially post-Independence, can deny the powerful impact Shammi made on their consciousness. When you say Shammi, the word ‘Yahoo’ and the icy slopes of Kashmir and Shimla erupt into my memory. I can still picture him dancing the way only he could. With his extraordinary style and swagger, he broke all external restrictions that the Hindi film hero had prior to that song. The bodies of the heroes on screen behaved in a particular manner, but here was a man who had unleashed a wild storm. He had this restless energy and light comic and carefree romantic touch that ushered in on Hindi screens a new vitality and machismo. This was the 1960s and a rebel star was born.
His music revolutionised Hindi films. What can we say about the musical association between Shammi and Mohammed Rafi? It was legendary, to say the least. If Shammi was fire, Rafi was the light. You can’t separate the two. They were one. Stitched together. Rafi sang especially for him in a unique way. To Shammi’s credit, he brought out another Rafi out of Rafi. I am not a guy who revisits movies but Junglee (1961) is one film I’d like to see again. One thing about Shammi Kapoor was that whatever he did, he made it look easy and fun. The fallout of that was that the so-called critics never took him seriously. His real contribution to Hindi cinema was the idea of ‘abandon.’ He brought emotional abandon to acting and song-and-dance. He broke away from the behavioural pattern that contained the fingerprints of the bygone era, in the process modernising the art of commercial cinema.
My first cinematic memory of Shammi Kapoor is from the B&W China Town from 1962. He plays a double role. With his seductive personality, Shammi was a young man’s hero. As a young child in the ’60s, he spoke to my spirit. It was invigorating to see him dance away to glory, but he was equally capable of dramatic and emotional scenes. In Junglee, he jumps and yells triumphantly on one hand and on the other, invites you to see a very different side of him in the song “Ehsaan tera hoga mujhpar”. These two distinct Shammi Kapoor images are testament that this man was more than just his dances and funny antics. He was singing a new tune. Some of our finest songs are credited to Shammi but he was also a creator of beautiful, poignant moments that made you wonder why we didn’t recognise his genius earlier. We see him dance exuberantly on “Yahoo”, with the volcano exploding — this protected boy was awakening to love and expressing his inner, dormant happiness — but later, we also see him in an intense and passionate “Ehsaan tera hoga mujhpar” with Saira Banu.
Unfortunately, in India, if you don’t do anything ‘serious’ and if you don’t have tears and glycerin in your eyes, you are considered a non-actor. That’s what happened to poor Shammi Kapoor. To be what is called a buffoon on screen or to have that light-hearted persona which brings the hall down is far more difficult. But the tsars and tsarinas who had decided what is good and bad acting called only serious acting ‘good acting.’ Shammi had no pretensions of being anything but an entertainer. Why are we so prudish about pleasure? No other nation in the world has been so apologetic about its popular cinema and culture. I think the post-Independence governments were ungenerous to the practitioners of Hindi cinema. The yardstick of judging our movies were in the hands of those high priests who had cultivated their taste in foreign lands. So their measure was different. It took a while for us to embrace our own Indianness and to say confidently, ‘Look, this is who we are.’ Only much later did we start acknowledging and expressing our fondness for song-and-dance. Personally and technically speaking, I was more influenced in my song picturisation by the master Guru Dutt and then by Raj Khosla who was Guru’s assistant and who later became my teacher. But Shammi was the star we all loved. In fact, Shammi and Guru Dutt were good friends.
Shammi was one of his kind — an original and unrepeatable. Even if I had tried to get my heroes to emulate him, I know one thing: they would have failed. They were incapable of emulating his passion and energy. I remember meeting him at the premiere of Gumrah at Maratha Mandir (Mumbai). Sanju (Sanjay Dutt) and Sridevi were there. Shammi paid me a compliment by saying, ‘I am a big admirer of your Arth. Why don’t you do more movies like that? This (Gumrah) others can do.’ I recall him saying that with great appreciation but also with the wisdom of an elder nudging you towards your own strength. I had chosen to walk away from “my strength” to make larger-than-life commercial films. He was respectful but also unlike a critic who only derides you, he praised me first and later told me gently that I should make more cinema in that space. ‘That’s who you truly are,’ is what he meant.
I was also a fan his brother Raj Kapoor. He brought the spirit of Chaplin into India. The word showman was applicable to one man and that was Raj Kapoor. Talking of Shammi, I have an unforgettable memory of his wife, actress Geeta Bali. My childhood was spent in Silver Sands building by the seaside on Cadell Road, close to Shivaji Park in Mumbai. We used to play cricket and she would come in her car to meet the well-known writer Rajinder Singh Bedi who occupied a flat on the ground floor of my building. We used to stop our cricket match to let Geetaji pass. She was a gorgeous woman who reserved her most generous smile for us. She would say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry’ for interrupting our game and walk right past us. Then, one day we heard that she had died having contracted the dreadful smallpox. That was so difficult to come to terms with. How could Mother Nature inflict such violent means to take her away from us? Back then, we were kids and still had a fairy-tale vision of life.
Shammi Kapoor, they say, never recovered from that loss.
(Mahesh Bhatt is a writer and filmmaker. He spoke to Shaikh Ayaz)